Food for trade

Food is an essential human need for survival, the consumption of food is simply our way of getting energy from the sun and nutrients from the soil. I often ask students: “What are the three most basic things a person, or any being must do to survive?” Keep in mind I’m not a Doctor or nutritionist, but the following does track…

One, breathing – you require oxygen.

Two, eating (this includes water) – you require food to make energy and to provide the building blocks to make all the parts of our bodies/cells. You require water because all living processes happen in a water solution so we need water to allow our chemistry to work!

Three, removing waste/toxins – you require the removal of anything that you get from any conversion of energy

Stop any one of these and the other two will stop at some point.

Food is the only one we attach value to. Since before the dawn of recorded history, people have hunted, gathered and traded for food. If you were a successful hunter and had any surplus you could trade it for items that did not grow or occur in your area; if you were talented at raising crops you may trade with someone for animal skins etc. This is the “barter system” and it was one of the first systems which brought human beings out of a day-to-day survival based on the quest to eat.

Think about it for a moment … at one time your skill at finding food and eating it used to be the only thing that gave you a shot at survival!

Procreation was an important but distant second for the survival of the species. The development of preserving and storing food gave people the ability to make it through the lean times. The rise of cultivating and tending crops, domesticating animals and animal husbandry secured a food source against times when the local wildlife could not provide. This gave us the time for art, science and social development. Wealth and well-being would have been measured against your food stores.

With the movement of populations to the urban centers we needed an industrial strength food supply system to feed massive concentrations of people who had no access to land to raise their own food, and in most cases probably lacked the knowledge to do so. Fast forward a few decades and the first multinational food corporations start to emerge.

Right around here is where we started trading agricultural products in the same fashion as we trade say, lumber.

My topic today does not focus solely on the ethics of the food industry. I mean, blame them all you want but we are the ones who, in the end (or is it at the beginning?) support them. They are doing what corporations do, making a profit selling us what we keep asking for – supply and demand. Specifically, in this case, cheap food. This post is to open a discussion around the real cost for that cheap food.

One development of our food industry is that food has become a commodity, traded on the open market as if it were petrochemicals, ore, wood or energy.

Often one company will produce, manage and/or provide logistics in distribution for more than one of these products, including food. So, our potatoes are being treated exactly like a bunch of iron ore. Bought and sold while they are still in the rail-car to the option that provides the most profit. Remember that thing where people in Mexico were hungry while most of the corn produced went to ethanol? What do you think happens to those potatoes if the market looks like it will take a dive because of an overabundance?

Make no mistake, without these systems in place there is no way you are driving to a supermarket north of the 49th parallel in February so you can pick up some fresh produce, they serve an essential purpose. What drives me nuts is while this system has provided us with the most secure food supply in history, it also offers us with some of the most abhorrent products ever devised.

Certain popular fast food chains in the late 70’s or early 80’s came up with the slogan, “Your way, Right away” and I also seem to remember “What you want, When you want it, How you want it” being out there too.

This for me, is the line marking the deep end of the pool for food marketing.

This is where price and convenience buried quality and diversity in an unmarked grave. What rose out of that is an entire market segment devoted to cheap, convenient food marketed to appear superior to more traditional meals.

For example, pre-packaged lunches, are on sale at the local super retailer for $.97. This is the place where I can get a movie, buy tires, find ammunition for my rifle, a replacement backpack for my kid AND this easy lunch option to stuff in that same backpack – sounds great, sign me up! A $.97 for a lunch which is cheap, quick (zero preparation on my side) and I know my kid will love it because it comes in a cheery, bright box that he looks at, points at, and asks for every time we walk past it.

No brainer, right?!

He better like the packaging because at 62g that is what I would be paying for. NO WAY does four slices of processed cheese, four slices of bologna and four crackers, all the size of a two-dollar coin (we are in Canada here) = $.97. Oh, yah wait, there is a tube of rockets in there too, because after this nutritious meal my kid will need a tube of candy to balance this out… The packaging weighs almost as much as the food and might contain more roughage and fiber.

My point is, that in some cases, the industry has figured out how to make more money on the package than on the food inside – so beware of that.

Also, you will hear how valuable your time is, so valuable that you cannot be expected to spend what, 5 minutes, on your kid’s lunch?! This is feeding your kid and, believe it or not, this is something some people in this world are literally working themselves to death to achieve.

I am a Dad, I am a professional cook and my kid will turn his nose up at most things I make him, he does it daily. We send him out the door to school with carrots and peas to go with his sandwich, and a snack like a granola bar, knowing full well that they are going on a tour of the neighborhood and coming right back home. I could give up, bow to the pressure and take the easy road feeding him a steady diet of highly processed and brilliantly marketed food items. I’ll tell you that I would not miss the daily battle to get him to choke down some snap peas and carrots, and when it comes to dinner at a restaurant, don’t even get me started. I want to scream, or cry or I don’t know what, but I will NOT take the offered alternative of cheap convenience food.

Please do not get me wrong, I think fast food has a place, so does ‘convenience’ foods.

I make some bizarre distinctions in my life, pre-packaged lunches are bad, but fast food egg breakfast sandwiches are acceptable, I get the dichotomy here. I do not think that Agro-corps are all pure evil, I think they fulfill a necessary function. I also believe that they exist solely because we demand they do, the minute we stop buying certain items is the minute they stop making them.

All I want is the next person who is complaining about the price of produce in Canada, in February, in the mountains, to stop and think just for a minute. Those pre-made frozen meals which seem so cheap right now are provided to you by the very same supply chain that brings you oil and gas. Very same people, look it up, Glencore, Noble Group, Agrocorp etc. all deal in several aspects of resource extraction and supply, and for some weird reason many of the parent company head offices are in Singapore, a major global shipping hub…

So, to bring the point back around, the commodification of our food is enabled  by supporting companies that provide you with convenience foods.  

When we buy their products, we are keeping “food for profit” vs “food to live” alive. For a company traded on the stock market the main goal is to make a profit to keep the shareholders happy, your health and happiness have zero impact on that calculation. What they have discovered is that by buying, shipping, processing, packaging, marketing and bringing that food to retail they can earn profit on each one of those steps and still get a price point guaranteed to catch your interest.

This is integrated distribution.

This kind of food is cheap for a very good reason, it makes A LOT of profit, but not a lot of good sense in the long term.

Stay tuned …

Executive Chef, Wade Rowland

Cheakamus Centre

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