It's About the Food
The Incompatibility of Food and Capitalism
By Chef Kurt Michael Friese
The primary purpose of capitalism is to perpetuate itself in the most efficient manner available. One needs money to make money, which in turn of course makes more money or is lost to someone else who uses it to make money. There are two purposes to making money. One is to spend it, the other to save it in order to spend it later or to use it to make – you guessed it – more money.
Capitalism accomplishes these goals rather well. It really began to hit its stride with the industrial revolution and the invention of the assembly line. It was pretty expensive to build one Model T by hand. However, add the efficiency of the assembly line and the miracle of volume production and just about anyone could afford a car in any color they wanted, it was said, as long as it was black.
Now it is at this point in Capitalism 101 class that obsessed foodies like myself become stuck on the horns of a dilemma. When food meets capitalism, one system or the other is going to get damaged. The assembly line is a great thing when making cars or microchips, where each one being identical in every way to the previous one and the subsequent one is considered an asset. Conversely, it is precisely a food's uniqueness that provides not just interesting, pleasurable flavor but also nutritional value and cultural importance.
Capitalism has, as its central tenet, the law of supply and demand. Once again, a good thing for microchips, but it does serious damage to the food supply and the planet when it comes to food. Take for example the Patagonian Toothfish. A native of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America, the fish had been prized for centuries by native fisherman for its delicate, pearl-white flesh, its abundance, and the relative ease with which it could be caught. As global trade wormed its way toward the region in the last quarter of the 20<sup>th</sup> century, the fisherman began to think that perhaps they could export some of this fish to wealthy Americans and others who would pay dearly for such a delicious fish.
The problem, though, was one of demand. The squeamish Americans were not interested in something called a "toothfish." Enter the marketing geniuses, who promptly renamed the fish "Chilean Sea Bass." It was an instant sensation in gourmet restaurants the world over. Now we have one of capitalism's great dilemmas, wherein demand outpaces supply. Normally this would drive up the price, which it did to a point, but then it leveled off at a wholesale price that is now around $10.00 per pound, wholesale. This was accomplished by increasing supply. Unfortunately, the supply was increased by harvesting younger fish, less than 8 years old. The Patagonian Toothfish cannot reproduce until it has reached maturity, which takes about 8 years. As a result, the fishery has been decimated and the species will be extinct in just a few years. That's a real shame because it's a tasty fish.
These modern industrial and economic models reduce food to a commodity. Capitalism runs into its difficulty in producing food because people can only eat so much. The market can only expand at the same rate as the population. The market answers this quandary by putting less and less food in the food, requiring people to eat more in order to be sated. But then demand outstrips supply and the costs of production go up as the quality spirals downward. The answer to this? Like any other troubled American industry: move it overseas. Land and labor are cheap in third world countries wallowing in first world debt. Transportation is cheap compared to the costs of growing close to the point of consumption because fuel pries are kept in line by the same corporate subsidy system that strengthens the agro-industrial complex at the expense of the local family farmer.
Food should not and need not be a commodity like crude oil. Our food is ourselves, and anything we can do to improve our food, by transitive property of equality automatically improves ourselves. This is just as true about the cost of our food; cheapen it and we cheapen ourselves. Industry has convinced everyone that food is fuel – pull over, fill the tank, get moving again. This sort of brainwashing has led us to become a culture that mistakes frenzy for efficiency, and most people do not pursue any alternative because they "don't have the time" to cook or to garden or to shop at the farmer's market. The supermarket is just easier, the drive-thru is just quicker.
If we truly are what we eat, then Americans could best be described as fast, cheap and easy. "In our molecules and in our dreams, we really are what we eat," wrote Naturalist Gary Paul Nabhan. "Eating close to home is not just a matter of convenience, it is an act of deeply sensual, cultural, and environmental significance."
Reducing food to a commodity is as repugnant as the smarmy TV evangelists who make a profit from people's faith. Food is every bit as important, and as spiritual, as faith. Treating it with callous disregard and offhanded apathy will have, in fact already has had, dire consequences for our society, our health, and our planet.