April 12, 2005

Eating not important

Bill McKibben has written an article in Harper’s Magazine (“What will you be eating when the revolution comes?”, April 2005 issue, read here, found via Gristmill) where he extols organic farming and uses Cuban urban farms as an example. McKibben focuses obsessively on production and shows little interest in the fact that food is for eating. This passage is characteristic of McKibben’s indifference to eating:

“For instance, consider Mexico and corn. Not long ago the journalist Michael Pollan told the story of what happened when NAFTA opened that country's markets to a flood of cheap, heavily subsidized US maize: the price fell by half, and 1.3 million small farmers were put out of business, forced to sell their land to larger, more corporate farms that could hope to compete by mechanizing (and lobbying for subsidies of their own). A study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace enumerated the environmental costs: fertilizer runoff suffocating the Sea of Cortez, water shortages getting worse as large-scale irrigation booms. Genetically modified corn varieties from the United States are contaminating the original strains of the crop, which began in southern Mexico.”

There is something missing from “the story of what happened.” Markets consist of producers and consumers. I would like to know the details of “what happened” to Mexican consumers.


  1. While cheap corn may seem like a wonderful thing to Mexican consumers, it is important to recognize that these prices are unsustainable and extremely sensitive to fluctuations in world energy markets, and ultimately dependent on a steady flow of government subsidies to American farmers.

    What certainly seems advantageous in the short-term, begins to look grim from a long-term perspective. The liquidation of Mexico's corn resources seriously compromises the nation's food security and sovreignty. What seems "cheap" to you is actually extremely expensive, as the cost of corn has been externalized in the form of susidized energy, subsidized production, pollution, and genetic contamination.

    To be fair, it is important to pay for the real price of corn when it is purchased, and not send the bill (which will be costly indeed) to our children and grandchildren.

  2. We don't know whether future generations will have to pay much or little for the cheap corn enjoyed by present-day Mexicans. But we will leave so many good things to them, while receiving nothing in return from them, that it would be only fair that they pay some of our bills. Our ancestors left to us many things (e.g., knowledge) that have made us much wealthier than they were. I don't mind paying some of their bills. I expect the same from our grandchildren.