Fri, 28 Apr 2006

The Real Cost of Cheap Food

I got off on a bit of rant the other day concerning large agribusiness claims that cheap labor (in the form of illegal immigrants) is what keeps the price of food low in the United States. To a certain extent, they're right: cheaper labor will obviously lower the price of nearly anything. But, as they say, there's no such thing as a free lunch, and the real costs of much food production these days are not really reduced, they're just hidden or pushed forward for future generations to contend with. Consider the cost of water rights, and the availability of fresh water.

The water situation is not only critical in Africa and the developing world, it seriously affects farming and ranching in the American West as well. And with the rise of CAFO operations in the Midwest, it's starting to impact folks around here as well.

A great deal of the moaning and complaining going on right now about illegal immigrants here is part and parcel of the same process: argibusinesses are importing the cheap labor, and passing off the costs to the general public (in the form of public welfare and health assistance) or deferring them to the future (generations of children in Mexico raised with absentee fathers, for example).

Water rights, like immigration policies, are the province of law, and governments worldwide have indulged themselves in setting these vital economic interests by political means, with the resulting waste, confusion and mismanagement.

Large producers get preferential treatment, and sometimes even subsidies, simply because they have more political clout than smaller operations. The result is economic concentration, and the deferral of real costs.

The benefits are visible immediately: cheap food. And the real costs won't be coming due until most of the politicians and businessmen setting them up are out of office or long dead. We're mortgaging our future, and unless we wake up, it's likely to bankrupt our grandchildren.

To you it is a bag of salad, dropped into the supermarket trolley with the weekly groceries. But to farmers in Kenya starved of the water extracted by large scale agriculture to grow it, it may spell destitution. The world is running out of water and British supermarket shoppers are contributing to global drought, according to environmental pressure groups.

(link) [The Independent]

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