A few years ago, I was at my local supermarket and I noticed something peculiar. There were two maple syrups products available, both about the same size, but one was $1.89 and the other was $8.99. How could such a price disparity for two identical products possibly exist? Upon a closer look, it became clear, the cheaper “syrup” was not syrup at all, but rather a soup of engineered chemicals that imitated maple syrup. This began a quest to understand what I was putting into my body, which ultimately led to some dire conclusions.
Nowadays, the anecdote that most of the products in your supermarket are all made by a few major corporations is fairly well known. The concentration of food products among a dozen or so manufactures creates the illusion of choice. It’s true, while you may have dozens of options for cereal, chips, or soda, they are all, in fact, made by a small oligopoly of producers. But there is more to this story.
It is the core mandate of corporations that they must strive to be profitable and also seek to grow profits each year and every quarter. It is this open-ended growth mandate that attempts to pump the share price so that shareholders are rewarded for their investment. While there is nothing wrong with this on its face, the reality is that humans can only eat so much and global population can only grow so fast. How can a food producer grow profits every quarter when food demand is limited by population growth?
To solve this, corporate farmers and food producers have turned to producing those foods that grow with the highest profit margins and are easily harvested by machine. The result: our food has lost diversity. We consume far fewer types of foods than our ancestors did, even though we have access to a greater total quantity of food. Overall, 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost since 1900.
Even the food that our food eats has this problem. Cattle, poultry, farm-raised fish, for example, are fed the cheapest foodstuffs with less diversity than is required in their natural diets, making them sick/frail and requiring the usage of antibiotics to keep them alive. As a consequence, our meat/milk/eggs is less nutritious than it was just decades ago.
Indeed, corporate control of the food production system has distorted the food market away from nutrition entirely and toward the production of sugar and carbohydrates, often in the form of food substitutes (like my fake maple syrup.) Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals, which are all essential to our health, are increasingly absent from our supermarket shelves. Michael Pollen, explains in his book “In Defense of Food” why this is happening. He explains that the qualities that make these nutrients good for us, also make them good for other lifeforms such as insects and bacteria. Therefore, highly nutritious food products do not have sufficient shelf-life and storage options that make them profitable, so food producers are increasingly shifting away from them.
Even our ‘healthy’ food options are falling victim to market distortion. While factory farms can certainly produce more food than in the past, the nutritional content of this food has fallen drastically over the past century:
A Kushi Institute analysis of nutrient data from 1975 to 1997 found that average calcium levels in 12 fresh vegetables dropped 27 percent; iron levels 37 percent; vitamin A levels 21 percent, and vitamin C levels 30 percent.
The consequences are obvious. We now live in a society where food is cheap and plentiful, but our population is overweight because it is chronically malnourished. Our brains are continuously telling us to eat in the pursuit of missing nutrients, but we only have ready access to the sugars and carbohydrates that make us more sickly. This tendency to over eat, and eat ever less nutritious foods has enhanced the bottom lines of food produces at the expense of our health and our pocketbooks.
In short, the food industry’s profits are no longer driven by (forgive the pun) organic “growth” but driven by the externalization of its own costs onto consumers in the form of reduced lifespans, higher health insurance premiums, and higher overall healthcare and dental costs. The food industry is no longer growing because it sells more food, it is growing because it is shifting its own expenses onto your dinner plate.
This does not mean that capitalism or markets are inherently evil, certainly not. But it comes as a stark warning that we ought to pay more attention to the limitations of profit-driven capitalist markets. Indeed, it may be time for policy-makers to begin thinking of ways of combating market distortion in favor of producing real food and not the food substitutes that are making us ill.