Food Ink 15

The True Cost of Food, Guaranteed Income for the Wealthy, and a Happiness Hotline

(8 minute read)

Hello friends and farmers,

Welcome to week two of my two-month experiment (of sending this weekly). A lot of you seemed to find the Feelings Inventory useful, and I was really glad to hear that. Expect more on the personal/emotional growth side soon, but this one is a little more food/farm-focused (though there is another handy emotion-related tool at the bottom).

See you down there!

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💰 Most of us already know this, but the price we pay for our food does not account for the externalities of producing it. If it did, how much would that price go up? "In July, the Rockefeller Foundation released a report estimating the true cost of food in the U.S. It found that while Americans spent just over $1 trillion on food in 2019, the actual cost when including pollution, reduced biodiversity, climate impacts, and other factors is three times that amount—more than $3 trillion."

So the concept of "true cost accounting" has long been in discussion as a way to add some guardrails and shift the incentives, or at least accountability, around some of these externalities. "At the most basic level, true cost accounting—or TCA—involves measuring all of the impacts of a given food, from production to consumption, on people, society, and the planet. Those measurements can then be used to tinker with the stated price of a food in many varied ways. Governments might pass laws to make food companies pay for water pollution, for example, or pay farmers to incentivize practices that reduce social and environmental costs."

Instead, we have our Farm Bill, which subsidizes certain crops, predominantly corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice, and thereby incentivizes overproduction and a general disregard for any other costs, social, environmental, or otherwise.

The TCA framework outlined in this article might be a helpful tool for policymakers, but it's also important to more deeply understand the existing context and history...

🌾 While I have some reservations about Sarah Mock (there was a whole blowup with Sylvanaqua, where she used to work; it was messy, there are obviously two sides to the story, here's hers, but that's for another time), she is quite knowledgable about agriculture systems and regulation. She has some good ideas that align with how I view some of the problems in food and ag, and this podcast she was on, "Sarah Mock on Treating Farms Like Businesses," has some real nuggets. Some of my notes and highlights (FYI the timestamp links are supposed to start at the written time, but some of them are a little off):

Taxpayers have been paying more than $5B to private farms for the last 25 years while the run-off problem has grown worse. Yet, the continued proposed solution is to pay farmers to do better. So payments have gone up, to over $46B in direct payments last year. And yet the problem has only gotten worse. (0:28:55)

Mexican land reform during the FDR New Deal era saw major benefits for the government and the people and highlighted the need for land reform in the US. Many of the problems we face can be traced back to the concentration of land ownership and the accompanying labor exploitation that it almost necessitates. (0:35:10)

We get sad that young farmers can’t find a way back to the land, but of course they can’t. "Saying 'Why don’t more young farmers own farmland' is like saying 'Why don’t more young people have trust funds'." (0:36:31)

Two things Sylvanaqua tried in order to solve the land ownership problem. One, employees earn equity in the business. (0:37:04). Two, other farms and businesses can join the network as their own business (they must meet certain standards in terms of environmental stewardship and economic interrelationship with other businesses in the network). (0:38:26)

Sylvanaqua's mission is to farm communally, pay people well, and act like businesses instead of small family farms that are really about transferring land wealth. They are informed by indigenous ethics and point to the Hutterites, who have been able to outbid everyone else in their areas and amass a large amount of land, as a recent example of the efficacy of managing farms like businesses. (0:40:00)

Once farmers, many of whom were some of the most ardent climate deniers for decades, decided to join the conversation around climate change and carbon markets, we let them set the terms and expectations. Why? Because we've been trained to "ask a farmer." This absurdity is much more explicit in the oil industry, for example, or in finance. When we let an industry regulate itself, it obviously does not produce good outcomes for the public, e.g., the 2008 housing crisis, yet we continue to let this happen. (0:53:51)

We hold onto this pervasive myth that Native Americans were hunter gatherers when in fact, they were advanced agriculturalists. They invented corn, which we still to this day don’t fully understand how it evolved, and were able to continuously crop cultivated areas in Meso America with corn and other highly extractive crops for 4,000 years. (0:54:54)

To say that indigenous Americans don’t have the skills to lead us in this regenerative agriculture movement is racist revisionist history. We are allowing White landowners, the beneficiaries of a rigged game, to lead the way, dictate what’s best for the general public, and benefit further in the process. (0:55:27)

"If anyone has a claim to being a successful long-term agriculturalist in the Americas, it goes Indigenous people, and then Black people, and then Asian people. And then, literally White people have never been good at it. We’ve never done it successfully for a long period of time. We’ve spent the last two to four hundred years advancing technology to lengthen the time period that extraction can continue." (0:56:05)

Agricultural regulation needs an overhaul. Donald Trump avoided $80,000 in taxes for his golf course in NJ because they "basically mowed the lawn there and called it haying." NJ only requires $500 in sales or ~5 acres to count as a farm to get ~90% tax credit. (0:56:59)

If the point of the farm bill is to ensure Americans don’t starve to death, food banks should be getting that money, not farmers. "Or we should just regulate companies to pay a living wage would be another option, but we don’t want to do that either." (0:58:01)

Purist capitalists oppose ag subsidies because it distorts markets. It would be an odd alliance, but free market capitalists, hunger activists, and environmentalists should be on the same side pushing against the farm bill ag subsidies. (0:58:26)

Many environmentalist groups are on board with conventional ag, using the same logic as impact investors who justify staying invested in fossil fuel companies under the guise of maintaining a dialogue. Koen asserts that that doesn’t work, and that we should focus on new businesses over transforming old ones. (0:58:38)

Subsidized crop insurance coupled with revenue protection risk management programs insure farmers against bad weather and bad prices, respectively, which are inversely correlated. "When you’re insured against every eventuality, that’s not insurance anymore that’s guaranteed basic income." (00:59:16)

"If we’re going to have a guaranteed basic income for anyone in America, is it going to be for the 2 million people who own $3 trillion worth of land?" Not to mention they are also some of the same people who have benefited the most and longest from systemic racism, oppression, and exploitation. (0:59:52)

We are already paying (conventional) farmers massive subsidies. Instead of paying them additionally for conservation practices, we should maybe be requiring them to perform those practices as a requisite to receive the existing subsidy money. (1:00:13)

"Land is part of a system that is part of a public system that we pay for as a country and hold collectively at some level." (1:01:37)

Land ownership as land stewardship. As it stands, land owners are incentivized to extract, and they benefit from tax breaks. Requiring land owners to maintain a minimum quality of land transforms what it means to be a tenant farmer: Instead of tenant farmers paying land owners to improve their land, land owners pay farmers to do that. (1:02:03)

Magic wand question: If you could change one thing in the food and ag system, what would it be? "Enforce all the existing laws, because we basically don’t. We basically don’t enforce any environmental laws on farms, we basically enforce almost no labor laws on farms." (01:02:48)

"I don’t know a farmer who hasn’t sprayed a pesticide off-label. That's illegal to do, but they just don't care and no one ever enforces it, no one ever checks." (1:03:11)

"At this point, I don't know a farmer who thinks that the organic certification is enforced. I just talked to a farmer who just had his organic certification renewed not too long ago - it was literally just like a guy drove onto his farm, handed him his certificate through the truck window, and drove away. That's organic certification." (1:03:19)

"Give enforcement to EPA to regulate pollution. Give enforcement to the department of labor to regulate how workers are treated, how workers are housed, how workers are paid. Remove all the exemptions from small family farms and just say, like, 'You're a business and we have expectations for how businesses treat public resources, customers, and employees, and now you're going to start acting like it.' I think that would be transformative." (1:03:36)

😊 Delight No. 4: Reesa shared this with me, and it's possibly one of the cutest and handiest mood-boosting tools ever: It's called "Peptoc," the project of a Bay Area school kindergarten class, and it's a phone hotline with pre-recorded words of encouragement from kindergarteners. When you dial the number, (707) 998-8410, you hit a voice menu and choose what you need. Here's the menu:

"If you're feeling mad, frustrated, or nervous, press 1.

If you need words of encouragement and life advice, press 2.

If you need a pep talk from kindergarteners, press 3.

If you need to hear kids laughing with delight, press 4.

For encouragement in Spanish, press 5.

If you would like to make a donation to support this project, please press 6."

The last option, to make a donation, only plays once you've hit another option first and then returned to the original voice menu. To make a tax-deductible donation to this project, you can go to: www.westsideusd.org

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Betting the farm,

Edlin