Droll Foods, Whole Paycheck?

We are now near the anniversary of an event that caused some outrage in the pure foods movement: on January 21, 2011, Whole Foods Market supported the entrance of Monsanto’s genetically modified alfalfa to the global marketplace.

If you missed our post on why genetically modified organisms are a big deal, go check it out now. Whole Foods’ support of GMO alfalfa is viewed as a massive betrayal to those who are extra conscious about what they eat. Whole Foods’ story is that they were backed into a corner by the USDA and forced to choose between nothing or “coexistence” – growing GMO and non-GMO side by side. They chose the lesser of the evils, and backed the approval of GMO alfalfa.

That’s just dandy, but at this point I would like to remind you that GMO crops do not coexist. If the patented gene in the crop makes it into your field, then you are suddenly guilty of patent infringement. There is no recourse for the farmer whose crop was contaminated, so the situation is fairly one sided. It’s like your teacher asking you to coexist with the bully who steals lunch money from you. What’s worse, it’s a particularly bad arrangement to make with alfalfa, much worse than with the other big GMO crops, corn and soy. You practically have to shove pollen into corn to get it to pollinate, and soy is a self-pollinator. Alfalfa, however, is insect pollinated, so there is not even a hint of possibility of containment.

Some bees just want to watch the world burn.

I think it is interesting to reflect on this because now, a year after the fact, Laurie and I still shop at Whole Foods instead of other large markets. If Whole Foods can’t protect us from the cheap food marketplace, why would one spend more money there? The goods at Whole Foods tend to cost more than alternatives, sometimes much more, earning them the nickname Whole Paycheck.

The anniversary of Whole Foods being pressured into signing off on cheap substitutes for food is the perfect time for a serious economic discussion. What is the difference between expensive and inexpensive versions of the same food? Why would we, a poor artist and engineer, scrimping to make a fledgling company fly, find economic sense in paying more?

First of all, lest ye think that my statement about being poor is modesty, I must point out that the earliest pre-funding stage of a startup is a very cheap existence indeed. The founders can’t afford to pay themselves much. I am paying myself the minimum I think that I can and still make rent, and Laurie’s not being paid anything for her work on the startup. I’m only making about a third of what my industry wage would be, while working more. We each make 2/3 the salary of a public school teacher in our area.

This being the case, why do we buy the more expensive food? Because anything cheaper is not something that we want to eat regularly. I know that we can buy cheaper goods, but I understand that I’m getting what I’m paying for, and I’d prefer to eat stuff that I can feel good about.

Let’s think about the economics of food: one of the basic tenets of capitalism is that success comes from maximizing your profit margin. There are two ways to do this: reduce the cost of your inputs, or increase the cost of your products.

With food, since the market is so competitive, increasing the cost of your product tends to be associated with marketing and advertising. This is mostly straightforward, if sometimes manipulative. Did you know the word “natural” is entirely unregulated, meaning products with genetically modified and man-made chemical ingredients are allowed to shout “natural” on the box?

That’s unfortunate, but decreasing costs is where the real scary stuff happens to our food. Here are some common ways costs are decreased:

  • Use cheaper supplies. This is why everything has GMO products in it, so that even Whole Foods can’t find products without them. The agrobusinesses that supply GMO crops can patent them, which enables them to establish a monopoly, keeping the competition away. They scale food and drive out traditional seeds the way Wal-Mart scales products and drives out mom and pop stores.
  • Use things that are not food. No, really, these products have extra wood or plant pulp (cellulose) added to them: Aunt Jemima syrup, Pillsbury cake mixes, Betty Crocker frosting, all sorts of strange places in McDonalds’ foods (strawberry sundae, shredded parmesan cheese, barbeque sauce, biscuits), Taco Bell in tortillas, chips, and some sauces, some Kraft macaroni and cheeses, some Wheat Thins (this one kinda makes sense, really…), in Pizza Hut pizzas, in Wendy’s Frostys, in Nestlé hot cocoa. This does double duty, because you can advertise the benefits as well: Wood pulp is “all natural”, “high fiber”, “fat free”.
  • Use antibiotics and hormones for meat, and fertilizers and pesticides for plants. Nature has a way of correcting imbalances, like concentrated populations of any one organism. Unfortunately, one of the best ways to cut costs is to use economies of scale. That means to pull off large monoculture farms, you have to use non-natural countermeasures to hold nature at bay.

Doesn’t it make sense that the largest companies with the cheapest food are the ones that are the most successful at doing these sorts of things to increase profit? That’s how capitalism works. This is why, at Whole Foods and specialty food stores, you tend to find more expensive food from brands that are not at international scale. The food producers there can’t compete economically with the big brands because they still sell, you know, food, and not wood pulp.

Food is one of our most fundamental needs. Many people just think of food and eating as an annoyance, like feeding a parking meter, but in reality, it’s medicine we take multiple times per day. Your body finds the components that are helpful and incorporates them into you. When it encounters something it’s not designed to use, it could be disaster. Best case scenario, it has to strip it out and eliminate it.

When that substance has a really harmful effect on your body chemistry, we call it poison. There’s nothing magic or common between poisons; their only requirement is that they can kill you faster than your body can deal with them. Cyanide prevents your blood from absorbing oxygen, which is very serious, but is fairly readily flushed from your body if you can stay alive. Lead has a suite of slower, less-acute effects that mess up everything from DNA transcription to enzyme production to blocking neurotransmitters, but it can stay in your body for years. Chocolate is poisonous to cats and dogs. Aspirin is fine in normal doses for us and dogs, but poisonous to cats. Ethylene glycol (antifreeze) is poisonous to all of us, but relatively speaking, about four times worse for us than our furry friends. Ethyl alcohol is poisonous in large enough concentrations, but fun, at least as we humans will attest.

Now, I’m not saying that cheap food is poisonous, but we only really know that alcohol is a long term poison, liked to cirrhosis of the liver, because of lots of study. Too much sugar can be poisonous, as over time it causes liver failure: diabetes. We’ve studied these effects and know a lot about their causes. Most of the things that we find in cheap food have not been researched nearly as well: not additives, nor preservatives, nor genetically modified organisms.

I have eaten pretty much everything in that set of products up there that include “wood”. Heck, I generate my own alcohol by homebrewing, and enjoy it quite a bit. I’m just saying that if you drink a pitcher of beer everyday, you’re going to get cirrhosis of the liver. If you eat a bag of chocolate chips every day, you’re going to get diabetes. If you eat cheap food everyday, you’re going to get… what? We just don’t know – but we do know that food related diseases kill more people in the United States than drug abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, firearms, and traffic accidents combined. Eating is the most dangerous thing you’ll do today.

So we pay the farmers at the farmer’s markets to not put iffy ingredients in their food, which is the best way to get real, actual food. We shop at Whole Foods because they do a reasonably good (but not perfect) job of selecting the kind of foods that most people think they’re eating, but, in reality, aren’t. We shop there because they have the largest selection of organics of any large scale grocery – which is much better from a don’t-put-weird-stuff-in-there viewpoint, as “organic” is highly specific, regulated, and cannot include GMOs or the worst chemicals and antibiotics. Sadly, cellulose can still be included in the ingredient list. Caveat emptor, still.

Why is real food a good investment? We pay extra money to support the farmers, producers, and distributors who have drawn a line: a line that defines where further compromises to food cannot be tolerated for the sake of a cheaper product. For stuff that we’re using thrice daily to maintain our health and happiness, it seems insane to pay for anything less.

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