Wednesday, June 01, 2005

moral economies of scale

The latest report on designer meat sends the Cod off the deep end:

The article embodies the fundamental problems with efforts to reform agriculture in the US, but chooses to ignore them. Pork chops at $11/lb are not a revolution, but perhaps a cause for one. Maybe not quite to the barricades material, but there is a difference between a grotesquely wealthy subset of Manhattanites choosing to pay a premium for tastier and healthier meat, and addressing systemic concerns about where meat comes from.

I have to admit I had a similar freakout a few weeks ago when presented with the opportunity to have organic cherries air-freighted to me for the low, low cost of $15/lb. The best part was that I had just turned down the very same famous farm's cherries at the farmer's market (at the already ridiculous price of $6/lb.), because they weren't very good. (Not their fault: it's been a bad year for cherries). Sure enough, the solicitation concluded

Thank you for supporting the revolution!

Returning to the matter at hand, the usual response is that mass-produced meat already costs at least $11/lb., but the "true cost" is externalized into ag. subsidies, health care costs, environmental damage, etc. Michael Pollan's ongoing corn project is probably the best work in this vein.

Just because the argument is true doesn't make it any more palatable than the twin conversation killers:

But food is too cheap (Alice Waters).

You shouldn't eat so much (Carlo Petrini).

Both true, but irrelevant (and enraging). I was talking to my dad about slaughterhouses last night, and I wonder if labor isn't a better way to approach the problem.

The low price of meat in this country has been made possible by concentration in the slaughter/meatpacking industry. This is not a simple story of consolidation conquering abstract "transaction costs" with their inexorable economies of scale. Aside from price-fixing in the various meat markets (and a real measure of technological progress over the last century), the savings have been achieved by de-skilling the labor involved.

[This process is familiar to any consumer who has tried to procure something more complicated than a boneless breast at the supermarket, the response to which is usually a mute gesticulation at the shrink-wrapped product, unless you are lucky enough to find someone old enough to know something.]

On the production end, the usual Taylorist/Fordist principles of industrialization are applied to the dismemberment/evisceration of the animal -- or rather of huge quantities of animals, moving down the line 300 an hour. Because of the already dehumanizing nature of the job, we are talking about more than the familiar loss of dignity -- and a living wage -- commanded by a once honorable trade. There is something visceral, pardon the word, about the horrors suffered by contemporary slaughterhouse workers. Even the most desperate illegal immigrants refuse to do it, and the labor has to be imported from ever poorer and more remote villages, where semi-indentured servitude at Wal-Mart wages still seems like a good idea.

This is where your meat comes from, and though Americans have always been happy to ignore how their sausages are made, not to mention the travails of labor, I can't help but believe that this process so fundamentally violates every principle of their cherished American dream that they can be persuaded to do something about it.

The problem for the crusaders, however noble, is that their goal seems like a world in which we all pay $11/lb. for pork chops, instead of one in which less unspeakable pork chops cost $5/lb. or whatever fake price you're paying for them out in the heartland. (Ignore for now the fact that we're all already paying $11/lb. without knowing it). But if all of our energy (and tax dollars) were expended on making agriculture more humane and sustainable instead of less so, we would probably come out ahead.

Read about your meat in the articles by Eric Schlosser and Karen Olsson collected here.

Tangentially related, but since it is Wednesday: before you go off on how easy it is to eat local in California, Olivia Wu's article whatever its flaws, explains why this is not so. And gluttons for punishment can listen to the Sibyl herself tonight at 11 EST.

If you insist: Hey, a special Farmers Market issue! What a revolutionary new idea!

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