Why The Sustainable Food Movement is Doomed

I want to root for these snowboarders trying to get their peers to drink water instead of Gatorade or Red Bull, I really do. I just can’t shake the feeling that their effort, and the broader movement to get people to cook, garden and eat ‘real food’, are doomed.

OK, here’s my logic:
The foundation of the modern economy is the idea of ‘value added’: You’re willing to pay more for a completed product than you are for its component parts. I buy a car from Volkswagen because I lack the skills and equipment to make one myself. They buy metal, rubber and grease, then rent some humans 8 hours at a time to put them together. They make profit by asking me to pay more for the completed car than they paid buying the materials and renting the humans. I know this is how they make profit, they know I know, the world goes around and around.

Food companies are no different than auto companies. They buy a bunch of raw materials, put them together and sell you a product for more than they paid. No big woop.

As opposed to cars, though, the raw materials that go into food products are readily available. The tomatoes, olives and basil sit in the grocery store 10 feet away from a shelf stocked with canned pasta sauce. I can buy a loaf of bread in a plastic bag or I can get some yeast and flour and go home and make one.

In this context, food companies can only make profit in two ways:
The first option is offering their customers convenience. A loaf of bread costs more than yeast and flour, but it saves you three hours of mixing, kneading and loitering around waiting for it to rise. You’re willing to pay extra for this because it saves you time.
The second option is offering their customers unique products that basically can’t be homemade or created in small batches. Coca-Cola, for example, big-ups its ‘secret formula’. You could make cookies or fudge at home, but you couldn’t make a Butterfinger. Pop-Tarts, whatever the fuck those actually are, are the offspring of a conveyor belt, not an oven.

For food companies, all the profit is in the processing. And the more processed something is, the more money the company makes.

Check out the top 10 food brands in America:

  1. Tyson
  2. Kraft
  3. PepsiCo
  4. Nestle
  5. ConAgra Foods
  6. Anheuser-Busch
  7. Dean Foods
  8. Sara Lee Corp.
  9. Mars
  10. Smithfield Foods

These companies aren’t getting rich selling foods straight off the tree or out of the ground. They’re successful because they’ve engineered products consumers are willing to pay a premium for.

Look at this graphic on ConAgra’s homepage:

What the fuck are these products?! SmartPop? Café Steamers?! Every capitalized word on these packages is designed to remind you that all the work has already been done. Don’t lift a finger! It’s already Reddi!

Tyson’s homepage is even more ghastly. Check out the righthand bar:

Grilled and Ready! Heat and Eat! Don’t get up, we’ve got this!

Every time a consumer reaches for an ingredient rather than a package, the food companies lose profit. This is why Big Food fights every effort to reform the food system. From better labelling laws to promoting farmers’ markets to getting snowboarders to drink more water, it’s all the beginning of consumers telling food companies: What do I need you for?

A safer, healthier and more organic food culture doesn’t mean you won’t buy food from these companies anymore. It means you’ll buy less profitable food. That’s what they’re scared of.

These companies can either fight the reform of the food system or try to make money off of it. The food industry already offers a million products labeled ‘light’, ‘low-fat’, ‘no carb’, ‘natural’, ‘heart-healthy’ and so on. All of these terms are complete nonsense, and just represent a way for the food companies to even further process raw materials and charge you a premium. You could probably make cream cheese at home if you really tried, but you definitely couldn’t make Lite cream cheese.

So even if the companies above sign on to the sustainable-food movement, their profit-maximizing natures dictate that they still have to offer us convenience or unique products, the things that got us into this mess in the first place. As long as the cost-benefit analysis favors processing over simplicity, they have no incentive to offer healthy products. And we have no incentive to buy raw materials ourselves.


Filed under America, Food

4 responses to “Why The Sustainable Food Movement is Doomed

  1. Actually, there are a couple of really fundamental incentives for buying raw materials, not having to do with ideology at all.
    First is taste: the food I most like are pretty much all of them better when homemade.
    Second is health: almost uniformly processing = added sugar, salt, and fat. Since I now have to reduce salt, that means reading labels, and results in many, many products being given the boot.
    Third: many foods are just bad habits. I buy perhaps a dozen soft drinks in a year. It would be none, but no problem with the occasional yen for a root beer.
    And fourth: you don’t have to be a purist. I’ll but canned tomatoes (organic, minimally processed) in the winter. I’ll buy bread – there’s a local company with a great no-salt sprouted wheat.
    I don’t want to kill the food industry, just rein it in a bit. I’m not going to start homesteading the backyard, raising chicken (too many raccoons in the area), or coming up with my own dairy. But I can choose to support smaller, quality businesses, and try to avoid buying crap. I don’t have to believe I will change the world with my decisions, but at least I can try to make it a little less worse with them.

  2. MR

    I can’t help but get the feeling that you are confusing two wildly different demographics. The people trying to grow their own food are not doing it for convenience’s sake, although it can be very convenient to walk outside and pick up a zucchini for dinner. The foundation of the modern economy is growing more and more distasteful for the grow-your-own foodies to which you are referring, which makes them a strange group to mention in the same breath/blog post with ConAgra. What is “doomed” about more and more people every year growing their own food, raising chickens, reading Michael Pollan, becoming more committed to eating less meat, etc. (all demonstrable)? That ultimately not every single person, or even a majority of one of the fattest countries on earth will get on board? It is a movement that is growing by leaps and bounds, nonetheless. Maybe we just have different definitions of what constitutes “doomed.”

  3. minbari

    Hey! I like cafe steamers!

  4. They may squeeze into the convenience crowd but I would say it’s worth pointing out a lot of people buy Reddi Chikn Lite Nuggety Goodness because they don’t know how to take care of themselves. They can’t cook, they can’t figure out how to shop in a way that supports cooking and sometimes the closest market sells 40oz and potato chips. Developing as a species further from the agricultural roots of civilization means people as a whole have less knowledge when it comes to everything that goes into perpetuating the existence of people.

    Not that growing up in farmland guarantees a good cook– I remember some of my grandmother’s dinners.

    And profits can be guaranteed regardless of what tantrums portions of the food market throws. What knowledge is being developed to replace a basic understanding of nutrition is genetic manipulation and, most promising/disheartening, trademarking the results. ConAgra and similar companies have begun putting agriculture in a headlock and will one day dictate most raw materials for food by means of proprietary rights.

    Not many people can raise enough wheat in their backyard to make enough bread for any real amount of time.

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