Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Nature as a Commodity

Laws and the market economy shape the way humans interact and view the non-human environment. We live in a time when the market has a big say in what we eat, what we buy and what our interaction, or lack of interaction, is with the environment. Laws restrict our actions while markets shape our options and choices. The expansion of cities and transportation systems have created a medium where products and commodities are imported and waste exported. Interaction with the non-human environment has become limited and not as necessary as it used to be. We have become distanced from the production of the goods—the natural environment-- and this has resulted in us seeing nature as a commodity.

The American consumer demands cheap items and food. The market has met this demand but this has created a disconnect between humans and the non-human environment. Due to the expansion of cities and the inability of places to be self-sustaining, products and food are shipped in from elsewhere, resulting in the process of production becoming unseen. We have been disconnected from the basic and physical process of production and therefore have been led into thinking of food as a commodity rather than something important in our culture that brings community together, or provides nutrition. Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma demonstrates humans’ distance from the non-human world that becomes our food, and our minimal relationship with the production process. We are so distanced from the production of what we eat that we see food, not as part of nature, but as an object to buy. “When we only think of animals as sides of beef to be eaten, we may obliterate the problem of the kill from our consciousness” (Sax 1980, 43).

People’s demand for cheap food results in the market putting out cheap food. “It is odd that something as important to our health and general well-being as food is so often sold strictly on the basis of price” (Pollen 2006, 244). Price is what determines what we buy, not the quality or where it comes from.

The market has also standardized food. “Standardization, has bombarded us with the message that all pork is pork, all chicken is chicken, eggs eggs, even though we all know that can’t really be true” (Pollen 2006, 244). With the market telling us that cheap is better, and that food is food no matter where it comes from, quality of food no longer plays into what we eat and buy. The cheapest is said to be the same as the more expensive. We no longer need to know where our food comes from because it is set out for us right in the grocery store, no interaction with the environment or the farmer is necessary. These are the forces that have turned food into a commodity. In fact, “our food system depends on consumers’ not knowing much about it beyond the price disclosed by the checkout scanner” (Pollen 2006, 245).

Humans beings are so disconnected from the production of their food that it no longer even looks like natural food. The market demand is cheap food that is easy to prepare in our fast-paced lifestyles and the “industrial food chain has made energy dense foods the cheapest on the market” (Pollen 2006, 107). Energy dense foods tend to be the over-processed foods that no longer look like anything our grandparents ate. These foods include everything from chicken nuggets that look like rectangle pieces of dough to prepackaged TV dinners. The chicken nuggets no longer look like the chickens from which they came. We barely even associate a chicken with the nuggets anymore. We no longer need to see the chicken that is associated with the nuggets. We just need to go to the store and buy the processed product.

Many problems exist with the way our food is marketed, but there are also problems with farming law. In Pollen’s book he describes visits to farms where he sees and experiences the full process of production. One of his experiences is at Polyface farm. Polyface processes their own food in order to keep the connection with nature. Joel, the owner, promotes “relationship marketing” where the buyers buy directly from the farmer and therefore create a “marketing” relationship. But even Joel runs into problems with the current laws when it comes to the regulations restricting the processing of food in areas zoned for agriculture (Pollen 2006, 234). He wants to process his own food because he believes that “having customers bag their own chickens preserves the fiction that they’re not buying a processed food product” (Pollen 2006, 235). “Joel is convinced ‘clean food’ could compete with supermarket food if the government would exempt farmers from the thicket of regulations that prohibit them from processing and selling meat from the farm” (Pollen 2006, 236). Even the farmers who fight for “relationship marketing” and promote human connections with where their food comes from, have problems staying afloat when farm laws favor big production though commercial markets.

Another problem with the market is that it has become “totally out of sync with nature” (Pollen 2006, 252). As humans who have come to buy products from the grocery store instead of the farm, “we have to battle the idea that you can have anything you want any time you want it” (Pollen 2006, 252). Because of the demand for cheap food as well as ALL food ALL the time, the market imports food from other countries where they can grow certain foods year-round, when we cannot. This process disconnects human from the seasons. In the past, humans used to eat according to what products were in season. The market has skewed the natural process of food and has created an even bigger barrier between humans and the things they eat.