Category Archives: book review

Book Review: ‘The End of Normal’ by James K. Galbraith

It had been a good five years since I’d read a book by an economist, so when Simon and Schuster offered me an opportunity to review James Galbraith’s new book with the plug, “The years since the Great Crisis of 2008 have seen slow growth, high unemployment, falling home values, chronic deficits, a deepening disaster in Europe—and a stale argument between two false solutions, ‘austerity’ on one side and ‘stimulus’ on the other,” I was glad to do so. Since I got my start in the blogosphere world over the subjects of peak oil and the economic crisis, it was about time for me to read Galbraith, who writes about both.

The banking system underlies everything that goes on in our maturing “democracy” which is structured around capitalism, and we sometimes lose sight of that fact as we plug away in our day to day work lives. Furthermore, our modern technologic and industrialized nation derives its economic power, comforts, food, and leisure time for its people through the consumption of affordable and readily available energy resources. In this book, Galbraith focuses on energy resource costs, our corrupt banking system, faulty thinking by economists, and a future which he predicts will be more dismal than the past, following our recent financial crisis which he views as a turning point.

Galbraith is a brilliant historian in the field of economics and this book includes his historical account of both the recent financial crisis and the last century. His efficiency of words is amazing as he provides short historical summaries packed with insights and critiques, especially of fellow economists who have written books or held positions deserving evaluation. The book is very valuable and worth reading for that alone. It is difficult for me to imagine anyone doing a better job of accurately and concisely summarizing and sequencing this recent economic history and it is richly informative.

Not only does he critique events as he recounts them, I really enjoyed seeing the questions he asked concerning the omissions from books that have been written by economists in recent years, especially in this time period since the crisis. Economists too often get a free pass even when they do not say what they should or when they do not address what should be addressed.

Regarding his fellow economists, he made some strong accusations. He described them as having a false expectation of normality with a belief that the market system tends naturally toward an end state of full production and high employment. And he accused them of using algebra equations to impress and baffle anyone beyond their own exclusive circles.

“The main purpose of the math is not to clarify, or to charm, but to intimidate. And the tactic is effective.”

He suggests what we’ve always suspected, that anyone who challenged this elite group of professionals could simply be told that they didn’t understand the math. Thus, the economists are further accused of only talking to each other, speaking their special code, and establishing their inner hierarchies, which Galbraith says is a perfect set up for disaster in predicting a financial crisis. The economists exist as academic “tribes” that are confined to making suggestions that are only tiny ventures from the established frictionless models so that the tribe continues to get along and accept each other.

Galbraith’s explains why economics is called the “dismal science”… there is a grim fatalism that even a prosperous society ultimately has low wages because of ever increasing population growth and the pressure of capitalist competition which always keeps driving down wages.

He explains that governments have used easy credit throughout history as a palliative to appease an otherwise frustrated populous, summarized by

“Dumb people got loans to keep them happy.”

It is easier politically to postpone a bill and opt instead for immediate gratification.

There are contrasts between capitalism and communism which are pointed out in this book. He mentions that there are many forms of price-fixing built into our “free markets” system which have always been ignored by economists.

THE IMPORTANCE OF RESOURCE COSTS
Galbraith lists the reasons that the years from 1945 through 1970 were the golden years of growth, and he explains that he doesn’t expect to see them return because they resulted from a unique set of circumstances that we will not experience again. It was during that time period that the theory of economic growth, the solution for most economic problems, was invented by economists. This growth model, from day one, tended to ignore all of the important factors it relied upon, for example, resources weren’t in the models, even though the domestic peaking of oil production in the 1970’s created a pricing problem. The way Galbraith describes it, economists decided to ignore the physics and engineering systems which integrate materials, tools, and the energy that power them, and they turned economics into a “dematerialized” psychological subject.

Agriculture is frequently referred to in this book. To illustrate the importance of the cost of resources in today’s economies, he uses farming. He contrasts the relatively low input costs of peasant farming with the high energy intensive costs of industrial farming. One uses labor and reaps little; the other uses large amounts of capital and energy, and reaps a lot. He notes that peasant farming is stable compared to the industrial farming system with its high fixed input costs. He expects that if energy prices rise greatly, the industrial farm’s profitability will fall and the peasant farmers will not change much. (Note: I would argue that subsidization policies would intervene in that event and overproduction would discontinue, since industrial agricultural production is determined by policy. In other words, some slack would be removed from the system which would be forced to become more efficient; and, for essential production, input costs would be subsidized. Also, the industrial system offers much more in the way of food security and storage cushions than does the peasant system.)

His writing on technology and how it impacts economies is quite interesting. He points out that robots in the form of machinery are often tax-subsidized and are not taxed like labor. He says that in a resource-scarce world, those who try to preserve technology which can no longer be afforded will see the greatest loss in living standards. Though he uses corn ethanol as an example here, I could imagine a scenario where high gas prices and low subsidized corn production could make corn ethanol favored even more, depending what the other biofuel options would be at the time, especially when all of the infrastructure costs have already been covered by the taxpayer.

Galbraith believes that rising resource costs were a factor underlying not only the recent financial crisis, but also the crisis in the 1970s that had inflation which later disappeared, although no economic studies that he is aware of have suggested this.

Now, I am going to interject my own observation or conclusion which is one I never would have anticipated eight or nine years ago when I was caught up in the peak oil scare. Galbraith has a theme throughout this book where he blames economists for ignoring the costs of resources, particularly oil, in their explanations of economics. He criticizes economists who brushed off the Club of Rome challenges because, the economists said, those computer modelers “had forgotten the power of new reserves, new technology, and resource substitution” and that because “discovery, invention, and substitution had always worked in the past” that it always would in the future. But, as opposed to Galbraith, I’ve personally come around to viewing energy supply more like the economists view it, because their view certainly proved true following the last “peak oil” scare in the mid-2000s. We reacted to the recession, became more energy efficient, and the advanced technology of hydraulic fracturing came into play. I’ve learned from what happened and have concluded that the economists were largely right after all, whereas those of us who saw the “peak oil” situation in concrete terms were the ones who were wrong. This history could continue to repeat for many more years into the future, as there are more forms of fossil fuels to go after which are in abundance on this planet, for example, methane hydrates. In another example, efficiency and technological gains have been remarkable both for hydraulic fracturing and in the process of extracting oil from tar sands. Though resource/energy costs will most likely continue to stair step upwards, society can adapt along the way, just as the economists expect. That said, we are living on borrowed time for a geopolitical event which could cause an oil shock, especially with rising populations that depend upon oil and the ever present unrest and wars in the Middle East. This threat to our modern world is real. (Galbraith ignores climate change in his book although he acknowledges it in one sentence, just as I’ve ignored it in this paragraph.)

THE RECENT FINANCIAL CRISIS
Lest anyone forget, he reminds us that at the peak of large bank financialization, banking earned 10 percent of all wages and 40 percent of all profits, calling large banks the highest of the fixed cost social structures.

To summarize the economic changes that have happened over the last three generations, he says, “the middle class has moved from being cash wealthy, to being house wealthy but indebted, and now, in the wake of the crisis, to massively illiquid and insolvent. Working off debts will be the way forward for a long time. There is no simple way, such as was provided in the 1940s by the war, to reverse this situation within a few years.”

He points out that prominent economists seldom mention the word “fraud” when recounting our recent financial crisis, when clearly there was fraud all around. Instead, Paul Krugman uses the words “reckless lending” and Joseph Stiglirz uses the word “mischief”. He disagrees with Krugman that monetary expansion alone is sufficient to end the depression which the crisis created. The fraud needs to be addressed first and foremost. Restraint as well as policing must be done.

People like Bill Black, Sheila Bair, and Neil Barofsky, lost in their efforts to police the crime that took place during this recent financial crisis. The do-nothing faction won, which he says was headed by the Treasury Department, the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Department of Justice. We must wonder and worry why the indictment of senior bankers most responsible for our recent crisis stands at zero, but more than a thousand industry insiders were indicted during the savings and loan scandal a few decades ago. This situation is yet to be remedied. (In recent news, the New York Federal Reserve Bank is holding a meeting this coming October 20 to address the unresolved problem of ethics in banking.)

Galbraith offers us a theory — that the recent scandal was motivated by a lack of good growth opportunities elsewhere. This was related to scarce or expensive resources. Fraud took over because it was expedient to allow the financial system to make up for lack of growth opportunities elsewhere.

Since the crisis, financial forecasts have been too optimistic, he thinks, because they are cast by those with vested interests, and because economists err on the side of cautiousness, never venturing far from the mean, and, they look too much to the past. Galbraith doesn’t see the future mirroring the past.

MILITARY, TECHNOLOGY, FIXED EXPENSES
He believes that while military power may have been helpful in obtaining resources at low cost in the past, “the nature of military power (today) has become such that no dominant power can any longer exist”. So, he feels the majority of our nation’s spending on military is wasted. And, he says, “the dangers we face, and in particular the barriers to economic growth, have no remedy by military means.”

In a very convincing and fun-to-read chapter, he sees recent technologic advancements a major cause of employment losses. There is a particularly wonderful paragraph that lists the vicious cycle of technologies which have all led to lower wages and fewer jobs for workers. It was one of my favorite paragraphs in the whole book.

He points out that it didn’t cost much to have kids in the 1950s and 1960s, but now, the fixed costs related to having children are high and a deterrent to having them. (This might be a good opportunity to note an omission of Galbraith’s in this book: no mention of demographics in predicting future economic outcomes in this system reliant upon growth.)

OUR BOOKS ARE BALANCED
Galbraith explains the U.S.’s advantage of “asymmetry” because of the world’s choice to denominate trade in the US dollar, plus, the desire of foreign nations to hold our Treasury bonds and bills. Inflation along with a devalued dollar would be a valid worry, he says, and would lead to high energy prices. But, he does not worry too much about a rising debt-to-GDP ratio leading to “instability”. The U.S. has no choice but to run a budget deficit in order to produce the bonds and bills that others wish to hold. This makes the oil and Asian goods flow into the U.S. while our accounting books balance perfectly.

CONCLUSION
His conclusion states, “A new economics must rest on a biophysical and institutional framework, recognizing that fixed capital and embedded technology are essential for efficient productive operations, but that resource costs can render any fixed system fragile, and that corruption can destroy any human institution.” This, he says, is his Dad John Kenneth’s economics of organizations modified to emphasize that large, complex systems are not only efficient but also rigid. These systems which become habit, can lose efficiency and destabilize when conditions become adverse.

He uses the phrase “efficiency and fragility are two aspects of the same system” as it relates to the subjects of resource costs and legal integrity. I like that quote as it relates to industrial agriculture production, too. No longer a national problem, but now a global one, he tells us

“We have become very large, very complex, very efficient——and therefore we have become very fragile.”

Technology is leading to fewer jobs, lower paying jobs, and fewer economic opportunities. We don’t need the big banks. Instead, the only banking that we really need could be run by states or postal services. A shorter work week should be considered, and we need to find “new areas of useful paid work.” Taxes on labor should be cut and taxes should be increased on the use of scarce resources such as land, minerals, and energy.

In a chilling end-chapter, he describes the fall of the Soviet empire. Why was it chilling? It woke me up to the many parallels between that system and the trajectory that our own so called “democracy” seems to be on.

Certainly, Galbraith is not concerned with belonging to any of the established tribes of economists, as he strays by a long margin from them while defending the common man. He is a hero for speaking up.

Wheat Genome Science Fiction by Dworkin: The Commons

If you enjoy Sci-Fi and agriculture, too, and you think the current dominant system just might be sitting on the precipice of a dangerous fate, this book might be for you. Prolific book author, Susan Dworkin, has a special interest in agricultural topics, in addition to Hollywood, and war. Since I am an artist at heart, I can appreciate that diverse variety of human interest subjects.

“The Commons” is the clever Dworkin’s latest book, and its plot is built upon a series of things that went wrong in agriculture, science, and politics over a couple hundred years leading up to 2165. The world and all living beings are in sad shape.

A changing climate and seed monopoly powers converge to threaten the global wheat supply. Her writing is quick, playful, and vibrant. I might even call it “wild”. The book is chock-full of surprising descriptive embellishments that guarantee to keep the reader entertained… a spaniel puppy, a Willa Cather quote, and a wheat gene savior which hailed from Tibet due to its location closer to the sun, are a few examples.

Here’s a quote from a dream of the main character towards the end of the book:

…if only the kids in Grandmas time had risen up, if only they had gathered together and risen up and demanded a change in the way the world was being used.

Personally, I think this world could use a little more agricultural science fiction, to get people thinking, rather than the ongoing and repetitive punditry that we all grow weary of. Kudos to the author, who is a friend of this site.

Book Author Interview with Maureen about Meat

The following is an interview with Maureen Ogle following the late 2013 publication of her book, “In Meat We Trust”. Maureen comes from a different place than much of the writing about agriculture or livestock production that you see today — because she is a historian more than a social critic.

K.M.: Your book, “In Meat We Trust” just came out a few months ago, and the ratings are looking extremely good over at Amazon. You got a big publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and I see that this is your second book, with the first one about beer. You call yourself a historian and you opted out of being a professor because you didn’t like playing that game. As someone who toys with the idea of writing a book from time to time, I can see firsthand that WHAT you choose to devote that much effort to –writing a book– would be a huge decision. How and why did you pick the subject of meat?

M.O.: IN MEAT WE TRUST is my fourth book, the second I’ve published with Andrea Schulz at (what is now) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And, yes, I’m a historian, not a “writer.” (BIG difference there. Big difference.) (And in my never-ending effort to help “the public” understand that J. K. Rowling is the exception, not the norm: the book, which has been out two months, has sold even worse than my previous book. Sold so few copies that most days, I wonder why I bothered. And that’s the normal Way of the Book for authors. We don’t get rich.)

As a historian, I’m interested in what it means to be an American, how our “Americanness” shapes the way we see and interact with the world around us. So that’s the thread that connects my four books (plumbing, Key West, beer, meat).

And yes, subject is key. I’ve got to be interested enough to stick with the topic for years. (I spent seven years working on the meat book. That’s a big chunk of life, you know?) But a topic also has to suit the form: Not every topic or idea is book-length.

But as to choosing the topic — well, my brain does the heavy lifting. The ideas for all four of my books simply . . . came to me. My brain presented the ideas and in amazingly fleshed-out detail.

For example, in the summer of 2006, the beer book had just gone to the printer and I had about six weeks before it came out. I wanted to use that short break to come up with a new book topic. A project that, cough, consisted mostly of laying around the house staring at the ceiling for absurd lengths of time.

But I knew that if I waited, my brain would give me an idea. Which, hooray!, it did — in the form of images of the western range. (I wrote about the weirdness here.)

I knew right away that meat was a great topic; a rich, productive way to think about American culture and Americanness. And it was.

I should add that I knew nothing about meat or its history. I prefer to write about topics about which I know nothing. Blank slate is better than fully-equipped-with-agenda. I also knew nothing, and I mean zero, about the “food debate” in the United States.

Also worth noting: the beer book came out the same time (fall 2006) as Michael Pollan’s OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA. I was busy promoting my book and thinking about the meat project and so knew nothing about the uproar his book caused. It wasn’t until about 2008 or so that I finally tuned into the “food debate.” (Remember: I’m a historian. I think about the past, not the present.)

K.M.: Have you lived in Iowa all of your life? Tell us how living in Iowa has influenced your perspective on food, meat, and the public’s attitudes about these things.

M.O.: I’ve lived here for all but two months of my sixty years, and I’ve always lived in a city (as do almost two-thirds of Iowans). And to the best of my recollection, I’ve never even been on a farm.

So when I started the meat book, I wasn’t thinking “Oh, I’m an Iowan. I know all this stuff.” I knew nada. But because I do live in Iowa, I’m probably a bit more aware than most Americans of agriculture as an industry, as a business. My mental image of a farm is not the little red barn and livestock gamboling about a pasture. It’s a business, pure and simple.

Which makes me a bit cranky when it comes to the commonly held view of farming and agriculture. Farmers don’t waste time wallowing in nostalgia for a past that never was. The only people who do are, well, city folks who live far from rural areas.

K.M.: My impression is that you are the kind of person who goes the extra ten miles in the amount of research you do when writing a book. Tell us a couple of things that you discovered in doing your research about the history of meat that you think would most surprise the average American.

M.O.: By definition, historians go not just the extra ten miles, but the extra zillion miles. We’re research animals, we historians. So, yes, I pride myself on my research, my attention to detail, my care with numbers, ideas, facts, etc.

I’d like to think that everything in the book would surprise readers. God knows I was surprised by what I learned.

But I think (hope?) that most readers will be surprised by a) the miraculous complexity that is the food system in an urban nation; and b) the fact that there’s not now and never has been a corporate plot to control agriculture. The mode of farming and food supply system that we Americans have was built over many, many decades and built by ordinary men and women making what were, for them, rational decisions about how to make a living from the land.

At least that’s my hope. Alas, it’s unlikely to remain a hope unfulfilled. The simple narrative outlined in Pollan’s OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA and the nostalgia-and-conspiracy driven view held by most food reformers is so much easier on the mind.

K.M.: When I observe farming methods and food prices (cheap) and our amazing modern grocery stores of abundance, I think how spoiled we all are, and then I see how dissatisfied so many consumers are about what their choices are in the grocery store. It seems to me that many of these voices have never set foot on a farm. I often suspect the word “hypocrisy” would fit the situation, whereas you seem more polite than that, saying “we can’t have it both ways”. Can you expound on this topic when discussing meat consumption?

M.O.: Heh. Been reading my mind much? Yes. And yes. I could write a doorstopper on your comments. But I won’t.

As I noted above, simplistic thinking and nostalgia shape the way many Americans view our food supply and especially the American way of meat. And only people who live in a society where food is both abundant and cheap (and the two go hand in hand) enjoy the luxury of being not just critical, but simplistically critical, of the complexities of feeding an urban society.

The critics tend to assume that their views are shared by the public as a whole, and so tend to assume that they know what the public as a whole wants.

But as near as I can tell (after seven years of research), what the public wants is meat, lots and lots of meat. Americans eat more meat than anyone else in the world. And as I noted in the book’s first chapter, when it comes to meat, we Americans have an extraordinarily well developed sense of entitlement. Access to an abundance of meat is and has long been a part of our identity.

Yes, making meat requires many resources — land, grain, water — but for four centuries Americans have chosen to use those resources to make meat. No one forced them to do so. That was a choice.

To now say “Hey! Meat’s evil. Stop eating it.” — well, that strikes me as a bit presumptuous (to say the least).

But the critics also (apparently) don’t understand that for four centuries, the American way of meat has been designed and structured in order to supply meat to a global market. This isn’t all about us, and to think that it is, well — that’s a short-sighted, provincial view.

If a consumer thinks meat is bad or too environmentally costly, okay! Great. Don’t eat meat. But at least try to see the big picture from the perspective of others.

Which leads to another matter that drives me batty: The critics rely heavily on victimization to make their point: They argue that corporations have driven small farmers off the land. They argue that corporations “control” our food supply and our kitchens.

That’s not what I found when I researched this book. Again, to repeat a point above, I uncovered a story of millions of people making rational decisions about their livelihoods, decisions that, yes, often meant that they decided to get out of farming and sell their land to a bigger farmer or to a corporation.

When critics blame corporations, in effect they’re painting themselves and the rest of us as witless dupes being steamrollered by the autonomous force of  “capital.” I don’t buy that. Blaming corporations necessitates an embrace of victimization. No thanks. Not for me.

K.M.: I also have a big “beef” with the fact that people are so out of touch with food growing. To me, growing food keeps us real. In your conclusion, you point out that industrial agriculture, including industrialized meat production, has given us a huge gift, and it is a gift that is seldom mentioned and (I think) taken for granted. What is that very important gift that you’ve identified?

M.O.: Until I researched this book, I had no idea how complicated food supply systems are, whether local, national, or global. What I learned left me in awe.

But I also realized that industrial agriculture made it possible for me to write books. I don’t need to spend my days raising food, processing food, longing for food. Nor do I want to do that.

So I’m grateful that I live in a world where food is abundant, safe (because despite the flaws in the system, our food supply is remarkably safe), and available. That leaves me, and everyone else in the U. S., free to think big, to criticize, to imagine a future that’s different from the present. That’s a gift.

K.M.: Although I don’t think it’s an ideal system, plus I am an animal lover, I look at industrial livestock production as being extremely efficient, all the way from the animal genetics to the processing plants. You made an interesting statement in your book, that there are different ways that people define efficiency. Please expound on those definitions.

M.O.: As I’ve said many times in interviews, given the demand, the American way of meat is incredibly efficient.

Let me repeat that: GIVEN THE DEMAND. As long as Americans eat more than two hundreds pounds of meat a year, as long as millions around the world, including the Chinese, rely on American meat supplies, the system we have, flaws and all, is both efficient and sustainable.

Critics argue that it only seems efficient because we ignore the environmental impacts: manure, tainted water and soil, etc. But I’d argue that given the system’s output, that degradation is relatively minimal. Moreover, during the past century, the entire meat-making infrastructure has relegated to specific locations — rural areas far from densely population areas. Anything that humans do — anything — causes some kind of environmental degradation. In the case of our meat system, we’ve effectively concentrated that degradation and in the process minimized its impact.

But the system is also efficient because it’s designed to function with limited labor.  Critics argue that there are so few farmers in the US because corporations have destroyed family farms. Nonsense. Farmers leave the land because they’ve weighed the odds and decided that theirs are better elsewhere. (US agriculture has suffered a labor shortage ever since the late 1930s.) Moreover, farmers compete for land with developers, demand for houses and highways.

Historically, farmers have adapted to the lack of labor and land by adopting tools like confinement, which first emerged as a tool for managing livestock with minimal amounts of labor and land.

So “efficiency” and “sustainability” are in the eyes of the beholder. Again, as long as demand, both domestic and global, remains at current levels, I don’t see how we can eliminate the existing system of livestock and meat production. We can change the way we make livestock and meat, sure, but we’ll also have to make a fundamental change in the amount of meat we eat.

K.M.: Since I’ve also lived in the Midwest, I’ve seen the intertwined issues involved in the immigrant story as it relates to employment in rural packing plants. Did your research and book cover that issue and do you have any numbers for us?

M.O.: Any book, but especially non-fiction, consists, in the end, of decisions made by the author. What’s important? What’s not? What should I include? What should I omit?

In this case, I wanted to understand the culture of meat in America, so I decided early on to focus on that. But I also realized almost immediately that the topic of  “meat in America” was enormous. I couldn’t possibly cover every angle.

So as I researched, I sifted through possible angles and sub-topics and eliminated many. Readers won’t find anything about cowboys (and only a smidge about Indians), for example. I also omitted any discussion of immigration in meatpacking/agriculture. There are plenty of other books and studies that examine those topics.

I also only briefly discuss unions and meatpacking. In that case, I explained how, after World War II, decline in demand for byproducts and the rising price of urban real estate drove up packers’ production costs and inspired a new model of meatpacking, one that depended less on human labor and more on machinery.

I hasten to add that, yes, I’m aware of the immigration issue, if only because of the Postville, Iowa, raid a few years ago. Frankly, I’d love to see employment in meatpacking drop to zero. The work is dangerous and unpleasant. No one ever has said “Gee, I wanna work in a packing plant.” Immigrants here in Iowa use the packinghouse as a starting point and get out of it as soon as they can. The towns near packing plants here in Iowa are hotbeds of immigrant-driven entrepreneurial activity: stores, restaurants, and other services.

So I say: let’s turn our immense creativity and our smarts to a project aimed at  fully automating slaughterhouses. Let’s get humans out of them altogether. Yes, ethicists like Peter Singer argue that eliminating the human equation from slaughter contributes to disregard for animal rights and distance us from the reality of slaughter.

To which I say: we’re already distant from our food supplies. We’ve already decided that animals are for eating. To eat meat is to decide not to think about it.

K.M.: Personally, given the amount of commodity overproduction that we have which is also environmentally damaging to our soil and water, I’d love to see a huge expansion of grass-fed beef in this country. You wisely comment in your book that it cannot compete with the profit opportunities for growing the monoculture crops on farmland. Do you have any ideas about how policy might support this? Or, did you come to a different conclusion about optimal meat production?

M.O.: Grass-fed beef  and pasture-raised pork are profitable high-end market niches for livestock producers. But it’s unlikely that every producer can or will go that route.

The problems with switching to grass/pasture, and eliminating confinement and “industrial” modes of livestock production, are the ones I mentioned above: Land and labor. Confinement and the industrial mode of agriculture emerged as solutions to soaring land prices and chronic shortages of labor. Ban CAFOs, switch to grass — but those structural factors will still be there.

For example, switching to grass/pasture would increase the demand for both land and labor. Where will those two “inputs” come from? (Here’s a good place to note that I’m not volunteering to move to the countryside and farm. And I doubt many other Americans want to either.)

K.M.: Why is it that the farmer, or the cattle rancher, or the cattle finisher always seems to struggle to make ends meet? Isn’t this a fundamental problem in our “efficiency” model?

M.O.: No. It’s the fundamental conundrum of agriculture in an urban society. Or, as farmers phrase it, the pain of plenty.

Here’s the deal: By definition, city folks are people who rely on others to make their food (the mania for urban gardens notwithstanding). They rely on farmers. And what they want from farmers is low-cost food. Elected officials also want that from farmers because they don’t want pissed off urbanites voting them out of office. Period. End of story.

But when farmers maximize their output to satisfy the twin demands of quantity and low cost, the result is seasonal gluts of food supplies. City folks spend little; farmers earn little. (This is simple supply/demand: the bigger the supply to meet demand X, the lower the cost to buyers.)

That pain of plenty is why, back in the 1920s, many farmers urged Congress to help them achieve income parity with urbanites. Urbanites were consistently enjoying more disposable income than farmers, in part because they spent so little on food, and farmers were consistently going broke trying to give urbanites what they wanted. So farmers urged Congress to, in effect, uncouple agriculture from the “free market” and instead anchor it to programs aimed at ensuring that farmers earned incomes on par with urbanites. The other term for this, of course, is subsidies.

K.M.: I notice, in all of my Ag news reading, how much the British tend to blame their grocery stores for everything surrounding food. My impression is that here in the U.S., our grocery stores are actually operating under very thin profit margins because the industry is so competitive. Did you find out any interesting connections about our meat system within our grocery stores here in America?

M.O.: Oh, yes. Indeed, the history and significance of the grocery chains surprised me more than anything else that I learned during the seven years I worked on this book.

Grocers’ power emerged at the same moment — the 1920s — that urbanites became a statistical majority and so Americans were trying to figure out how to manage agriculture in a society where urbanites dominated. Congress held a series of hearings and investigations aimed at analyzing the entire food system, from farm to table. The goal was to identify and eliminate the efficiencies that drove up food prices.

It turned out that the bottleneck lay in distribution and delivery. At the time, the majority of food retail outlets — butcher shop, dry goods store, produce markets — were small, mom-and-pop shops, temples of inefficiency. The then-handful of chain grocers, most notably A&P, were perceive as highly efficient alternatives. During the 20s and 30s, states and Congress developed statutes and policies that intentionally and unintentionally eased the path of grocery chains, and turned those chains into power players in the food system.

But it quickly became apparent that the chains could serve another purpose: They functioned as translators of consumer desires, conveying information about those desires to food manufacturers. By the early twentieth century, food had become, in this country, a consumer good rather than, say a basic commodity (packaged, branded crackers, rather than barrels of no-name crackers). Consumers expressed desire through purchases made or not made, and the chains passed that information along to food makers.

And in the late twentieth century, when the American consumer market fragmented into a host of niche markets, grocery stores pressured all food processors, all meatpackers, and all farmers to streamline and specialize so as to meet those niche markets.

Put another way, grocery retailing, which encompasses distribution, delivery, storage, etc., plays a crucial role in keeping food costs low. But its other and powerful role is as a translator of consumer demand to food makers.

K.M.: Only in the past few years has our per capita meat consumption headed downward here in America. And, we’re eating more poultry. This site loves to speculate on future trends. What do you think the future of meat will look like in our nation in 2030?

M.O.: Oh, boy. I wish I knew. 2030 isn’t that far away, so frankly, I won’t be surprised if the consumption picture looks the same.

And there’s a chicken-egg thing working here (no pun intended): On one hand, we have an efficient infrastructure for making livestock and meat, so consumers at any price range can eat as much meat as they want. As long as demand remains high, the infrastructure will remain in place. And as long as the infrastructure is in place, demand will remain high. And on and on.

My guess, however, is that producers will continue to respond to activist pressure — they’ll use bigger or fewer chicken cages or fewer antibiotics. (Indeed, I’ll fall over in a dead heap if antibiotics are still being used on farms in five years.)

The poultry part of the equation is interesting: In 1976, demand for beef began dropping. By the end of the century, it had plunged by more than a third. But Americans substituted poultry (I think it was 1987 when poultry overtook beef as the nation’s most popular meat). So I doubt the rankings will change: poultry, beef, pork.

But let me reiterate a point I made earlier: at present, the US infrastructure is designed to accommodate both domestic and global demand. But that will likely change soon because of China. Yes, meat consumption is soaring in that country.  But in recent years, the Chinese government has embarked on a long-term project to move rural people into cities so as to nurture the nation’s manufacturing sector.

That means fewer farmers will supply a larger number of consumers. And that, in turn, means that China must modernize its agricultural system and do it fast. And by fast I mean they’re going to do in about ten years what it took Americans to do in about a hundred.

The fastest way for them to do that is by buying ready-made technologies and systems. That’s why Shuanghui bought Smithfield last year: Not because Shuanghui wants to dominate the American meat supply but because it wants to ramp up Chinese production (and, presumably, in the process dominate that country’s meat supply). Tyson has also transferred its poultry production systems to China.

The point is that once China gears up, and once it manages to meet its own needs, it will be positioned to supply global consumers in the way that American companies do now. And those American companies, well, they may not be American companies anymore.

These days, that’s on my mind: Between the “let’s save the family farmer” critics and the lure of the yuan, we Americans are in the process of demolishing four centuries of agricultural supremacy. (To say nothing of ag’s role in our national identity.)

We’ve already conceded manufacturing and education and, so it seems, leadership in science. Do we really want to give away agriculture, too?

K.M.: Yesterday in my local paper, there was a full page ad by Consumer’s Union, urging readers to call Trader Joe’s and ask them to get their meat off antibiotics. Please comment.

M.O.: The CU project to wean Trader Joe’s off antibiotics is interesting. TJ’s is a smallish chain, at least by comparison to the big grocery chains like Safeway and Publix. And most of the stuff it sells is high-priced, heavily processed foods. So it’s, well, curious that this project is aimed at it rather than a more mainstream chain. Presumably TJ’s shoppers fit the demographic that contribute money to food reform non-profits?

Although I’ll finish with this thought: I knew nothing about the food reform movement (or project or whatever it’s called) when I started the book. So I investigated its historical roots and was fascinated by what I learned about the rise of consumer activism and about the rise of the non-profit sector of the economy.

And make no mistake: consumer/public interest/non-profit is a big big industry. It’s in a non-profit’s interest to keep coming up with “issues.” The Humane Society of the United States, to name one obvious example, has latched on to livestock welfare as a cash cow (no pun intended). So no matter how much the reformers get, no matter how many battles they win, there will always be another one. That’s how the public interest sector keeps itself alive. That’s not a bad thing, but no one should operate under the illusion that non-profits and public interest advocates are in it for the nobility of the cause. Those causes represent money.

K.M.: In ending this interview, do you have a favorite quote — either something by yourself or someone else — that is a life’s guiding principle?

M.O.: Quotations… These three have guided my life and work:

“ … in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Anne Frank

“It is only with the heart hat one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” THE LITTLE PRINCE, Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“The main thing in life is not to be afraid of being human.” — Pablo Casals

And perhaps I should say: Those quotes inform my life, which means they inform my work, which means they inform IN MEAT WE TRUST.

K.M.: Thank-you for your time, Maureen!

3 Picks: Monarchs Disappearing, Feeding Frenzy, Nature Outlook


Monarch caterpillar on milkweed
Flickr CC photo by Benny Mazur

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) Monarch Butterfly Habitat Under Siege: By Tom Spears. “Journey North, an American group that adds up migration observations from the public, estimates that monarch numbers have fallen 80 per cent from 2012. And a University of Ottawa biologist think an even larger decline is possible, up to 90 per cent. … Milkweeds are the only plants on which monarch can lay eggs and are also a food source for them. Pesticides ‘are wiping out their host plants over really large areas, like the whole American Midwest. So it’s cutting off the migration at the knees, and cutting off the return migration (in fall) in the same way. The number of butterflies that overwintered (in Mexico) last year was really small’….”

2) Book: Feeding frenzy – The new politics of food: By Paul McMahon. “He believes that sub-Saharan Africa is Ground Zero for many of the food production challenges discussed in this book but goes on to write, ‘Sub-Saharan Africa has enormous potential to increase production with more than 750 million hectares of suitable land that could be brought into production and the potential to triple yields…'”

3) The Journal Nature has a special Outlook issue on Agriculture and Drought: Two articles you might be interested in reading are “Water: The flow of technology,” by Katherine Bourzac; and, “Microbiome: Soil science comes to life,” by Roger East.

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.

3 Picks: Project Honeygate, One Mind, Charles Mann

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) The Honey Launderers: Uncovering the Largest Food Fraud in U.S. History By Susan Berfield. “Von Buddenbrock and Giesselbach continued to cooperate with the investigators, according to court documents. In September 2010, though, the junior executives were formally accused of helping ALW perpetuate a sprawling $80 million food fraud, the largest in U.S. history. Andrew Boutros, assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago, had put together the case: Eight other ALW executives, including Alexander Wolff, the chief executive officer, and a Chinese honey broker, were indicted on charges alleging a global conspiracy to illegally import Chinese honey going back to 2002. Most of the accused executives live in Germany and, for now, remain beyond the reach of the U.S. justice system. They are on Interpol’s list of wanted people… Although the illicit honey never posed a public health threat, the ease with which the German company maneuvered suggests how vulnerable the food supply chain is to potential danger. ‘People don’t know what they’re eating,’ says Karen Everstine, a research associate at the National Center for Food Protection and Defense. The honey business is only one example of an uncontrolled market…”

2) When I Moved Online … By Tao Lin. “As a kid, when I began using the Internet, I was probably most interested in the prospects of solitary exploration. But I’d like to think that I was also compelled by forces outside myself — that, on some level, I might have been dimly aware of the Internet’s role in the fulfillment of some ancient, human yearning to externalize our private imaginations into a shared space. Maybe I intuited that the faster the world was relocated into the Internet, the likelier humankind would be returned to an original and undifferentiated oneness, completing what it began around 13,000 years ago with agriculture, which resulted in villages, then cities, finally the Internet…”

3) Der Spiegel summarizes Charles Mann’s (pub.2011) book, “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created” By Johann Grolle. “Columbus’ arrival in the Americas sparked the globalization of animals, plants and microbes. A recent book takes a closer look at how items from the New World, such as potatoes, guano and rubber, quickly and radically transformed the rest of the planet. Tobacco, potatoes and turkeys came to Europe from America. In exchange, Europeans brought wheat, measles and horses. But who ever thinks about earthworms? Yet they, too, were brought to America by Europeans, and hardly with fewer consequences than those of other, more famous immigrants…”

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.