The koan and the magic trick: the food system, explained

Ad from the Toronto Star, Feb 9, 1956 Source: Jamie on Flickr

NOTE: I’ve been working on a book about what I’ve learned in the grocery business, and this is a short excerpt from one of the chapters. I might post more, you never know.

A lot of what’s been tried in the “alternative” food realm so far has struggled to get traction. Projects tend to find themselves co-opted or dependent on either upscale markets or some kind of subsidy or all of these things. All of these ventures require heartbreaking amounts of work and risk, especially at small scales, especially for people who aren’t well-capitalized to begin with. And from the outside, it’s hard even to understand why.

After several years of trying to find succinct ways to explain it, this is as close as I’ve gotten.

Our food system is built on a kind of riddle or koan that has no actual answer. That’s what happens when you bring together the need for food with the workings of a market. That’s what started to happen in Europe – specifically in the parts of England that also sent most of the first settlers to what’s now called New England – several hundred years ago.

Markets have been around in one form or another for millennia now, as a way to facilitate trade and generate wealth and – very often, and very sensibly – stabilize food supplies. But markets also have a tendency to take on a momentum of their own. Food-as-sustenance and food-as-commodity are not only different but can be fundamentally at odds, in a range of complicated ways.

The incompatibilities are harder to see at first. In fact a lot of things about this pairing seem to make perfect sense. But once you’ve scaled the system up to a certain point and pushed prices down to another point, the fault lines start to become clearer. When means become ends – when you’re spending most of your effort propping up the market mechanisms rather than focusing on feeding people well – the initial logic of the pairing gets skewed and big problems start to push through the cracks.

We’ve had a long history at this point of workarounds and bandaids and compromises and deals to try to address those problems. The history of farming in New England shows us that the Europeans who settled here have been tinkering with this system for almost as long as they’ve been using it.

There’s still no solution to that original koan. But about a hundred years ago, Americans figured out a wonderful magic trick that seemed like a solution. This trick made food permanently cheap by producing and selling it at very large scales, using the new wizardry of industrial production.

I know food doesn’t feel cheap right now, after a run of inflation and rising prices. But it’s still relatively cheap. Compared with food prices in most other places, or considered as a percentage of overall household expenditures, food here is still much, much cheaper than it was before the food system became so fully industrialized.

In fact, making food (relatively) cheap turned out to be yet another workaround that caused another whole tangle of problems. But it’s become a staple part of the magic act that feeds us, continually refined and added to over the past century. It’s different from other workarounds because of how it changed the basic rules of the game.

Once food was cheap, it became all but impossible to do anything that might make it more expensive again. The real trick was to create a food system that couldn’t be changed, one that could only be tinkered with – one that everyone from the most impoverished eaters to the most powerful politicians would line up to defend.

When you try to find simple, clear ways to explain this, as I often have to do in my classes, it can feel as though the system itself is resisting clarity. Opacity seems to be its natural state. This actually makes perfect sense, if you think of it as a magic trick resting on top of an insoluble paradox. And if you’re idealistic enough to try to find ways to change it, you tend to run into the same few blind alleyways over and over again, the way the conversations at our co-op did when I first started trying to understand the trouble we were in.

In fact, the problem at the core of things is very simple: by now it’s become nearly impossible to make money selling food except at the very largest of scales. That’s because food has been made cheap. And there are a lot of reasons – some good, some terrible – why it can’t simply be made more expensive again.

Here’s some additional reading on the history of how food was made cheap:

2 years ago

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