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6 Bogus Economic Arguments Used to Trash Local Food

A critique of local food proves that the models used in neoliberal economics do not accurately apply to food and agriculture.

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Until recently, California was set to approve a potent carcinogen to fumigate strawberry fields. This chemical, methyl iodide, was to replace its predecessor, methyl bromide, which was phased out globally because it harmed the ozone layer. Should Californians be exposed to a carcinogen just so a few strawberry growers can get rich and the rest of the country can eat cheap (but flavorless) strawberries year-round? Or should midwesterners drink tapwater laced with the herbicide atrazine? When confronted with this question, Desroches dismissed the idea that agrochemicals are harmful, pointing to the increasing human lifespan in recent times.

5. Legal System: In a recent case Nicaraguan farmworkers brought against Dole, the workers sued over health problems caused by a pesticide called Nemagon used on the Dole Plantations. Nemagon has been banned in the U.S. since 1979. Initially, the farmworkers won their case, but it was overturned in an appeal after Dole found 27 secret witnesses who testified that the plaintiffs were fraudulent. After Dole's victory, several of the secret witnesses came forward and recanted their testimony, saying they testified because Dole offered them bribe money -- and then never even paid them the bribe money.

Most recently, Dole settled out of court with the farmworkers. Economists might assume we can create a perfect legal system that passes laws protecting workers' rights and enforces them as much as they assume they have can-openers -- but it doesn't make either one true.

In our global food system, human rights abuses abound. Most are invisible to us when we shop at the grocery store. A recent WTO ruling challenged even the basic principle that we should be allowed to know what country our beef comes from. Pesticide standards only require that residue on food in our stores is limited, but nobody checks to find out what farmworkers were exposed to. Did the company that grew your food drive an indigenous community of their ancestral land with bulldozers, or did they irrigate their crops so heavily that an entire river the community relied on now runs dry? Did somebody’s property value plummet after a factory farm moved in next door, forcing them to smell manure night and day while simultaneously killing their chances to sell their home and move? These are not made-up scenarios -- all of them have happened. But in the grocery store, you don't know.

6. GDP Meets Human Health: From the perspective of maximizing GDP, our current food system cannot be beat. We have found ways to make people eat more than ever (and more processed foods than ever), and then they spend more money on diet books, weight loss programs, gyms, and health care for diet-related illnesses. This boosts the GDP much more than if people just ate the right amounts of a diverse mix of whole foods and then skipped the weight loss programs and the diabetes meds. But is it what we want?

For an economist, our current food system is highly efficient, producing, distributing, and selling the maximum amount of cheap food. A large amount of food is “value-added” (i.e. highly processed), which means that more companies and employees will earn money from each food. Instead of wheat or even wheat flour, a consumer buys a loaf of bread, giving jobs to the bakery and requiring dough conditioners, preservatives and a plastic bag that would not have been necessary if they just baked a loaf of bread at home.

Unfortunately, economics only quantifies dollars, not human health. According to those looking for GDP growth, it’s better if you buy a bottle of Heinz ketchup than if you grow tomatoes from seed in your garden, and it’s better if you buy a Snapple made with 10 percent juice than if you eat a piece of fruit. Maybe we would be better off if economists start assuming that we don’t have can-openers, so we have to cook healthy whole foods from scratch. 

 
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