Monday, July 14, 2008

Eat Now, Pay Later

"Eat now, pay later"

If you were at a restaurant and the waiter or owner of the establishment said the above phrase to you, you might feel elation at the idea that you can chow down for now and worry about the bill in the future.   Forgot your credit card?  No problem - the restaurant will let you pay the next time, or maybe in installments.   If all restaurants allowed that, even I could afford to go to Per Se or Masa in New York City (for those not plugged into haute cuisine, these places charge between $250 - $400/head at least for a meal, about as much as one-month's apartment rent in some cities or towns).   Perhaps you want to impress a date at a fancy place, but your recent spending on one addiction or another has put you in the red.   A financing plan for your high end meal would solve your problem.   It would be like a Sears plan for your filet mignon - buy now and pay no interest for two years!  

As unlikely a scenario as the above is, it serves as a canvas for my second point:  "Eat now, pay later" as it pertains to our world food supply and sustainability given our current first world eating habits.   

While a restaurant offering a policy of delayed payment seems absurd, the majority of developed nations are treating the world food supply system as if it was one giant restaurant that is offering to delay the responsibility of eating there (monetary payment for service, i.e. depletion of natural resources).   Within the US, current industrial farming practices extract as much as possible from our soil, using excess amounts of pollutants along the way to coax an unnatural amount of food from the earth in order to satisfy consumer expectations for cheap produce.  

One irony stemming from this is that while mass produced grocery items have historically been priced low (prices do not take into account the social and environmental externalities these farming methods generate), grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods see less of these so-called cheap produce and instead stock mostly unhealthy processed foods.  Many of these processed foods use corn byproducts as main ingredients, corn being the leading overproduced crop in our nation.  Thus, the poorer neighborhoods are more likely exposed to eating the chemical byproducts of our agricultural overproduction and less likely to purchase the low-priced natural foods that are also spit out by our farming industries.  If there is a problem with our food supply system, then by these observations there is also a problem with our food distribution system.

Destructive farming practices are condoned by a public largely unaware and uninterested in the origins of the food at their market and on their plate.   They are supported by arcane farming legislation that panders to economic policy more fitting for post-WWII than the current marketplace.  Recent efforts to change some of this policy hit a rut, with many Democrats (and Republicans) putting full support behind such legislation as subsidizing corn production and its major byproduct, ethanol. (  Bush vetoed the 2008 Farm Bill twice, with the House/Senate overriding each time and launching the bill into law.  Who knew I would ever be on the same side of an issue as Dubbya?

In the past several years, the public has slowly become aware that we have been eating on borrowed credit.   Yes - the food system restaurant is coming to collect!   The evolving world food crisis we are facing, it can be argued, originated from our careless regard towards the economic impacts of our food policies and our over-extension of land and other resources.   The Slow Food movement, the local and organic food movements are recognition that we can no longer operate on the same modus operandi we have relied on for the past few decades.  

So, what can individuals do to make a positive impact?   The first is to pay more attention to the food you eat.  Instead of expecting food to be dirt cheap, take some time to learn about how your food arrived at your dinner plate.   Don't be sucked in by fuzzy phrases such as "organic" and "natural" - oftentimes these words do not mean the food is produced responsibly.  If you can, support your local farmers, who operate a much cleaner and sustainable farming practice than large agribusinesses.   I say "If you can" because I understand that local food can be more expensive.   However in a world of rapidly rising food prices, it seems that choosing to pay a few more dollars and cents for responsibly grown food can contribute to a shifting tide away from the unhealthy mass production that we currently consume.