Home Economics Apparently Mark Bittman Really Is This Stupid, Yes

Apparently Mark Bittman Really Is This Stupid, Yes

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We’re going to hear a lot of this nonsense:

The global, industrialized food system faces increasing scrutiny for its environmental impact, given its voracious appetite for land is linked to mass deforestation, water pollution and a sizable chunk of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The implied trade-off has been that advances in agriculture have greatly reduced hunger and driven societies out of poverty due to improved productivity and efficiencies. But Mark Bittman, the American food author and journalist, argues in his new book Animal, Vegetable, Junk that these supposed benefits are largely illusionary.

Sigh. More food being produced on this piece of land right here – greater agricultural productivity – means less land is used to produce food. That means more for wildlife and gawping at the wonders of nature. This shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp but clearly it’s beyond some people.

You could certainly argue that agriculture, agriculture slavery and capitalism are all tied together. And that’s something that developed from the 15th to the 18th century.

Well, no, actually, you can’t, Because it’s precisely the mechanisation – the greater labour productivity – of agriculture that abolished slavery. When you can’t direct labour by waving a whip over them working in the fields because tractors don’t react that way then there’s no actual point to slavery. Free and cash paid labour is, umm, more productive, at that point so why bother with slavery?

It’s the usual American idiocy, to see slavery as something unique to the Americas, without realising that the Roman latifundia and all that all also worked off slave labour. Where does he think the world helots comes from?

The Irish famine was the first well known one and I guess you could say the first politically caused famine as opposed to more environmentally caused famine. They’re all complicated, but the Irish potato famine can definitely be laid at the feet of the English who had converted most of Ireland’s peasant farmland into grazing lands for both animals, the meat of which was destined to be sent over the Irish Sea.

Bollocks. The Protestant English insisted that the Catholic Irish followed a specific inheritance rule, that the land be divided among all children. For the same reason Napoleon insisted upon the same, in order to break up the power of a landholding elite. This forced the population into a peasant monoculture as that’s the only way half an acre would feed a family. The solution to this is higher productivity and mechanised agriculture of course.

There was a time that almost everyone farmed and grew food for themselves and their neighbors and or trade, local trade and so on. But at some point, surplus became more important than feeding people. Growing food, or growing crops in order to sell them and make money became more important than growing crops to feed people.

And that process accelerated since 1500, or whenever you want to say capitalism began. To the point where, in the States at least, 95% of crops are basically grown as cash crops. And the question is almost never ‘What is the land telling us we want to grow? What can we grow that will be most beneficial for our community? What can I grow that’s most nutritious that will damage the land as little as possible?’ Those are not questions that are being asked.

The questions that are being asked or the question that’s being asked is ‘How can I make the most money possible with this land?’

Dear God, the stupidity. How do you make the most money out of a piece of land? By doing with it whatever all the other people around it value the most. Sometimes that is food. Sometimes it’s housing, sometimes it’s comeandseethewildnature.

I really think the enclosure of the commons was a big deal. When the nobility started dictating to peasants what should be grown and how it should be sold and to whom it should be sold.

Enclosure stopped the manorial court determining what was grown and devolved it down to the individual farmer.

And peasants began to run out of land to grow food for themselves and their families. That was one of the driving factors in the industrial revolution. And we’ve just seen that accelerate.

The greater productivity allowed some people to escape standing around in muddy fields and go off and do something more interesting with their lives.

As for producing cheap food that Americans can afford, yeah, that’s a trade off. That’s an industrial revolution era trade off. Workers were paid, it was assumed that women’s labor was free. So you didn’t have to pay workers enough to worry about child care or cooking or any other domestic chores. And then if you made food cheap, you could pay them even less.

Amazing how the industrial revolution raised wages then, isn’t it? And think through his complaints about processed foods that require little preparation time. If we go back to foods that require more preparation time we’re going back to insisting that someone’s time, somewhere, is free to do that processing, aren’t we?

And if you look at a chart of health care costs versus food costs, it’s perfect like this. As food costs go up, healthcare costs go down. And as food costs go down, health care costs go up. So cheap food, that’s a direct correlation. Cheap food has had a terrible impact on public health. As every country switches from a traditional diet to a more American diet, their rates of chronic disease go up. In every single instance. And yet we cannot get government to consider this a crisis.

Anyone want to try to explain Maslow’s Pyramid to him? Health care is a superior good – as we gain higher incomes we spend more of our income upon it. Food is an inferior good, as our incomes rise we spend less of our income upon it. So, as we make food cheaper our real incomes rise and we naturally spend more on health care as against food.

Yeah, exactly. The society is paying the costs. Just like every aspect of food that you want to examine carefully has hidden costs. Economists call them externalities. Hidden costs that aren’t included in the cost of the product. So, Walmart pays its workers badly, you get cheap stuff at Walmart, including food.

And some huge percentage of those workers are on food stamps. You’re also paying for those. You’re subsidizing Walmart employment costs. It’s not just cash, we’re paying with our own health.

That old idiocy. Something you get whether you are employed or not – food stamps depend upon income, not employment status, largely enough – is not a subsidy to your employer.

I’m not saying we have to go from industrial farming back to farming the way it was in the 1600s by any means. But I’m saying there are steps we can take to reduce the use of pesticides.

Why? Why do we want to reduce agricultural productivity so that we have to use more land?

Mark Bittman simply doesn’t know anything about the subject he’s decided to educate us upon, does he?

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3 COMMENTS

  1. A prosperous society with plenty of cheap food meant I could afford to have a quad bypass about 20 years ago. Now I’ll admit some people may well feel that the world would have been a better place if I’d kicked the bucket back then. Especially the pension fund.

    But naturally I chose to live a little longer. As I get older, I need more health care to keep getting older still. This applies to everyone who lives longer, because the cheap and plentiful food means they don’t starve to death.

  2. The amazing bit is he says this as though it is an ideal to aim for:
    “There was a time that almost everyone farmed and grew food for themselves and their neighbors”

    Yeah, that means almost everybody has no time available to do anything else. He’s advocating universal hand-to-mouth peasant culture. Oh, except for himself of course.

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