The Food Crisis

These are bad times to be an eater in America, as anyone who has suffered sticker shock at the supermarket can tell you. The cost of necessities such as bread, milk, and eggs has risen steadily in the last two years—by as much as 30 percent in some parts of the country. Vegetables, fruits, meats, cheeses—all are climbing. Even that most sacred of goods, beer, is skyrocketing in cost.

In part, the rise in food prices is a function of the cost of gasoline. Food travels a long way—1,200 miles, on average—to reach American stomachs. It does so because American manufacturers, giddy at the bounty wrought by the Green Revolution and the advent of jets and container ships, long ago taught American consumers to abandon the idea of seasonality. We have come to expect bananas, oranges, tomatoes, corn, and the like to be available year-round, requiring the transportation of strawberries from Chile, citrus from South Africa, tomatoes from Ecuador, hothouse lettuces from France.

Our farmers return the favor. Near my home in the Arizona desert stands a vast complex of greenhouses. Its name, EuroFresh, tells the story, for those greenhouses, 164 acres devoted to tomatoes alone, provide much of the produce consumed on the continent in wintertime.

Why European greenhouses do not grow food for Europe, and American greenhouses for America, is a complex matter of international trade, treaties, and government subsidies, too complex to do more than wonder at here. Suffice it to say that for many reasons it is good to be a farmer these days—not the small farmer of the kind celebrated in Jeffersonian ideals of democracy, but the farmer as agribusinessman, with millions of dollars of expensive machinery and miles-long rows of monoculture crops.

Those industrial farmers have long enjoyed federal largesse unavailable to their Jeffersonian counterparts in the form of massive subsidies, some in payment for not growing crops that are too abundant on the market, some simply handouts to the already wealthy. A landowner is allowed to earn up to $2.5 million per year in adjusted gross income and still be entitled to a broad portfolio of subsidies. In a rare fit of fiscal restraint, the White House recently proposed to trim this to $500,000—but not to close the many loopholes in the tax code that would make even this figure attainable to anyone with the slightest talent for creative bookkeeping.

Couple all that with other incentives, totaling $2.4 billion, that take such forms as optional self-employment tax, full write-offs for racehorses, and generous allowances to reduce personal income taxes with farm losses, and it seems curious that farming should not be the career choice of the best and brightest of our current crop of college graduates.

Nonetheless, many farmers are now shunning subsidies altogether and uncoupling themselves from federal price controls, for, as if to honor Marx’s dictum that capital has no country, there is gold to be made by growing crops that are too abundant here but in terrific demand elsewhere. Corn is one such crop, shipped as ethanol and syrup, the twin fuels of the modern world—for ethanol is an ever-more-important ingredient in gasoline blends, and corn syrup underlies the First World diet of processed food and soft drinks.

The energy-hungry European Union has been buying great quantities of American ethanol of late, though E.U. ministers are increasingly skeptical about the environmental value of the stuff, which uses more energy to produce than it yields. For its part, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recently opined that food crops should be used for food—particularly in countries not so thoroughly subsidized as ours, countries in which, on average, food costs have risen 83 percent in the last three years.

Meanwhile, food riots are breaking out across the world, in Haiti, Cameroon, Egypt, even normally tranquil Thailand—which, though a major rice producer, now limits how much rice an individual can buy, the better to sell the crop to an insatiable China.

[amazonify]0803216327[/amazonify]There are no easy solutions, and all the signs point to hard times for eaters for years to come. But I have a few modest proposals for producers and consumers alike. Producers, remember what land your land is in; common decency would suggest that you repay the taxpayers’ generosity by marketing your wares close to home. If compulsion is required, then we might insist that any farmer who has ever been issued a subsidy turn over a proportionate share of the current harvest to stock food banks, feed pensioners, and serve other such worthy purposes.

And to eaters, I say, now is the time to learn to grow your own food, to return to local agriculture. Eat a little lower on the food chain. Do without bananas and tomatoes in February. Know where your food is coming from. Buy from local Jeffersonian-scale farmers. Plant a victory garden, and declare righteous victory over foreign powers and our own strange government. All these things are your patriotic duty, and your stomach and pocketbook will thank you for doing it.

Gregory McNamee writes from Tuscon, Arizona. He is the author, most recently, of Moveable Feasts: The History, Science, and Lore of Food (Praeger).

This article first appeared in the June 2008 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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