November 06, 2005

The Conquest of Bread

Everyone has to eat and the entrepreneurs of the State of California know a captive consumer audience when they see one. In The Conquest of Bread, Richard Walker takes a 150 year tour through the history of commercial agriculture in California and illustrates the quintessential corporate mindset when dealing with living things. The entire goal is to do away with risk, with unpredictability, while keeping profits and assets strictly in the hands of those who know best how to fight for them.

In terms of the production of food, risk and unpredictability come from every direction and so, too, the fight against it becomes more determined. Labor is unpredictably demanding, so itís given where possible to immigrant and migrant workers with little to no legal standing. Soil can be patchy and highly variable, so itís thoroughly killed with methyl bromide and turned into a dead matrix for a precise measure of fertilizer and pesticides. Plants dare to vary from one generation to the next, which Californiaís explosion of horticultural experimentation sought to precisely control, if not stop. It isnít surprising after all this that the food industry, via grocery store chains, pioneered automated inventory control.

According to the USDAís international food consumption database, Americans spend just less than 10 percent of their incomes on food, less than anyone else. The average, comparing between 114 countries, is well over 35 percent. This puts Americans on par with other wealthy nations, places where food costs little enough that it often doesnít seem important to think about where it comes from. Yet problems, when they arise, are hard to contain at the point of origin. The labor practices of the agricultural industry push down wage standards and living conditions, the steady chemical spill finds its way into the falling water supplies and racial hostility spreads far from its convenient beginnings in profitable wage slavery. Still, the conditions of the manufacture of designer sneakers in exotic locations gather more public attention than the production of food in a state that usually provides at least one thing for any given table in America.

Walker concludes that California represents a form of capitalism that works so well that it has no natural limit and no tradition of local family business to run opposition, no matter how much damage it does. However, there are bright points here and there. Both the fleeting success of Cesar Chavezí labor movement and the now healthy organic farming movement found their feet due to popular support from retail consumers. If there is to be a change, it would have to come from the one group that agribusiness still canít quite control: the consumer. Slow as the public may be to cultivate their social consciousness at the checkout line, recent history shows this to be the most effective way to turn the tide.

Posted by natasha at November 6, 2005 08:22 PM | | Technorati links |

Nice post. Thanks.

Posted by: paradox at November 7, 2005 03:47 PM