Oct 19, 2008

ann cooper and polycausality

i like to say that everything is polycausal. one example, obviously, is food. in 2005, we ran a tutorial in the biology department here (bio95hfy, no longer offered) on biology, agriculture, conservation, and ecology. one of the core ideas of the class was how the patterns of human food-consumption are multiply-determined: culture, location, transportation, genetics, industry, among many other factors, influence what we choose to eat.

for north america, there may be no more important influence than agricultural subsidies. direct subsidies to the agricultural industry, in the form of payments made to farmers or purchases of commodity crops like corn and milk, have averaged $19 billion a year for the last 5 years. EWG maintains a database of the distribution of american agricultural subsidies (here is their 2007 database) which is interesting to poke around in. they've also done some analysis on the concentration of the subsidies, and estimate that the top 20% of subsidy recipients under the farm bill absorb 84% of the funds (based on distributions from 2003-2005). more than a third of the subsidies go to feed grains--including corn. these subsidies corn-growing economically feasible in the US (though obviously not fully) accounts for the presence of high fructose corn syrup and corn-derived ingredients in large swathes of commercially-produced food.

in addition, there are slews of indirect subsidies to agriculture that distort how we eat. oil, gas, and coal subsidies make synthetic pesticides and fertilizers derived from oil or manufactured in energy-intensive processes (such as the haber-bosch process for fixing nitrogen) cheaper than they otherwise would be (or should be) and thus increase the rate at which we use them. the subsidised federal interstate system makes it cheaper to transport food from across the country than it otherwise would be (or should be).

(this article about the food complex is not bad either.)

which is all a long, winding way of explaining how it is that school districts in many parts of the country are able to feed children on a food ingredient budget of just a few dollars a day per child: much of the raw material (meat, milk, corn-based products) comes either from federal crop purchase programs or is inexpensive by federal subsidy, and is implicitly subsidised by cheap transportation and cost of production. the food is cheap (cheaper than it should be) and so it makes economic sense to use it even though it's crummy. ann cooper, executive chef of the berkeley public school system, is trying her best to make it make economic sense to use good food and cook it well (she's not the only one; sCool Food in santa barbara is approaching it from an institutional perspective as well). burkhardt bilger wrote a detailed feature on her work in the new yorker (in the sept. 4, 2006 issue; only the abstract is online). but you can get a sense of what she does in her TED presentation:

* alice waters and josh viertel, new president of slow food america, were just here this week. their panel was facilitated by, of all people, homi bhabha. he didn't seem to have much background on the interconnections between food, culture, and the machinery of production that exists here and in the rest of the world. he cited repeatedly, in fact exclusively, from last week's new york times magazine.

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