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Pollution vs. True Free Markets

December 8, 2021

As you know, capitalism has taken a bad rap in recent years. Much of this is due to the examples we see all around of industrial rape of the earth and environment, highlighted by powerful environmentalist groups who point to capitalism as the culprit. That may be true, in part, at least. However, I say it’s not true capitalism when an industry is supported by anything other than by its own profits and doesn’t foot the bill for all of its costs of production. True capitalism, I believe, allows businesses to serve society a product that adds value to its existence while at the same time internalizing its costs the same way profits are internalized.

I became familiar with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. when I was assigned to vet him as a speaker for the local Family Days on the Farm event last summer. In the vetting process I came across a several speeches that resonated with my passion for making the world we live in a better and more beautiful place via responsible eating and farming. 

RFK Jr. (famed for his work in Children’s Health Defense), is less known for his work in environmentalism around the world, but he is a passionate advocate for holding corporate polluters accountable and for free market capitalism, and makes an interesting connection between environmental pollution and free markets.

Agriculture and food production has largely gone astray, in my view, since the advent of chemical herbicides, pesticides, and fossil-derived fertilizers. This straying has been vastly harmful to soil quality around the world, more, has resulted in food and feed that is sadly lacking in vital nutrients. Even the Amish farming community in rural Lancaster and Chester Counties has been drawn along on the conventional chemical hamster wheel called agricultural science. While our culture still primarily farms with horsepower, it hasn’t barred the broad-scale adoption of modern agri-scientific methods that turns out to be little more than lousy stewardship (if not outright rape) of the resources entrusted to us. Having been raised in this setting, I must say, environmental activism or concern, traditionally, was pooh-poohed, and still is for the most part.

So, when RFK Jr. said, “We don’t even consider ourselves as environmentalists anymore, we consider ourselves like free marketeers because we’re going out into the marketplace to catch the cheaters …”  I perked up not because I knew he would talk about pollution and corporate corner-cutting, but due to my wish to see small-scale responsible farming liberated from erroneous regulation that suppresses it. In other word, the "cheater" Big Food corporations who cozy up to regulators in order to amalgamate market access without jumping through the hurdles smaller producers face.

But he had more to say, such as; A true free market promotes efficiency. And efficiency means the elimination of waste, and pollution is waste. A true free market would require us to properly value our natural resources, and it’s the undervaluation of those resources that causes us to use them wastefully. As I continued to listen, I realized that this is exactly where we are in food and farming.

Food production, like many other business sectors overtaken by corporate interests, is atrociously wasteful of its resources—perhaps more wasteful than any other single industry. Here’s how;

1) In conventional agriculture, the soil is regarded as little more than an inert substance to support the plant, resulting in most of the soils of the world—and the foods they produce—being severely mineral deficient compared to a few decades ago.

2) Because of the undervaluation of the soil and the constant diminishing thereof, the plant is artificially “fed” with fossil derived fertilizers and “protected” via fossil derived herbicides and pesticides, all delivered via fossil dependent machines (conventional agriculture is the number one consumer of fossil fuels). This is simply not necessary to produce food, not to mention food produced outside the industrial model is bay and large more nutrient dense.

3) as the food industry amalgamates to fewer players, it becomes increasingly dependent on transportation (think cross-country and trans-continental transport using fossil fuels for conveyance as well as refrigeration, not to mention wear and tear on taxpayer funded infrastructure). Again, and abject waste of precious resources not used in more local food economies.

4) last but not least, as food companies get bigger and fewer, reliance on massive warehousing and longer-term storage results in an atrocious amount of perishable food wasted. Food that never even reached to retailer or consumer. Large purveyors are far less nimble and cannot respond to market demands quickly, resulting in massive lots of food passing the sell by date and ending up wasted in landfills.

In Kennedy’s speech at UC Berkeley in 2016, he made this profound statement; “You show me a polluter, I’ll show you a subsidy. I’ll show you a fat cat using political clout to escape the discipline of the free market and force the public to pay his production cost. That’s what all pollution is. In a true free market, actors of the marketplace ought to pay the cost—the full cost—of bringing their product to market. Which includes the cost of cleaning up after yourself, which is a lesson we were all supposed to have learned in kindergarten. What polluters do is manipulate the political system, so that they don’t have to obey the rules of the market, and they can pass those costs on to the rest of us through pollution—by privatizing the commons.”

While I couldn’t say it any better, allow me to expand on this—especially concerning food and farming. I find it interesting how he connects pollution and subsidies, because conventional farming is heavily subsidized. From direct payments per acre for six leading crops (corn, soy, cotton, canola, rice, and wheat) to crop insurance to the Conservation Reserve Program to Dairy Price Supports, and on and on. Interestingly enough, in this scenario the fat cats and the polluters are not necessarily the same people. Industrial farming is a major polluter of our soil, water and air, due to erosion and the runoff of agricultural chemicals into aquifers and streams. The now New Jersey sized dead zone in the Gulf of Mississippi is directly connected to synthetic nitrogen runoff from farmland in the Mississippi River watershed—which is the second-largest drainage area in North America. Measurable glyphosate in rainwater around the world is undoubtedly linked to the leading agricultural herbicide Roundup getting into the water cycle. Yet, commodity farms are essentially serfs in the agricultural system, and are paid dismal prices for their crops. Which is hardly the image we concoct of fat cats.

However, the corporate buyers of these commodity crops reap the benefits of subsidies in the form of cheap commodities for processed foods and animal feeds, and lobby in Washington every five years to ensure that the maximum number of our tax dollars are allocated to the new Farm Bill. These are multi-national corporations like Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Tyson, and others, who cut corners via the political system in order to garner larger profits for themselves. How was it worded, again? “…manipulate the political system, so that they don’t have to obey the rules of the market, and they can pass those costs on to the rest of us through pollution…” This is not only true of publicly funded cleanup costs of waterways, etc., but also in the form of adulterated and less-than-nutritious food which is a direct contributor to what is now the sickest wealthy nation in the history of the world, the nation known as the United States of America.

He went on to say; “Wherever you see large scale environmental injury, you will see the subversion of democracy, you’ll see the corruption of public officials, you’ll see the capture of the agencies that are supposed to be protecting us from pollution—they become sock puppets for the industries they’re supposed to regulate. You’ll see the erosion of the press—the compromise of the press. The disappearance of local control—of zoning laws or planning laws—and these kinds of local sovereignty is eliminated. And you’ll see the end of transparency. Because pollution is always illegal, and it violates the rules of democracy. It allows these powerful entities to steal and capture our public resources, because they have to be sneaky when they do it.”

How very familiar we are with that! As I’ve said many times now, the county and state regulators who dog small businesses like us typically answer to the [publicly funded] federal agencies like USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), who, secretly, answer to Big Corporate Food. Big Corporate Food, by the way, is regulated—in theory—by the FDA and USDA. The same could be said about EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the corporate chemical giants such as Monsanto, Bayer, and the like. 

What Kennedy so eloquently exposes is the fact that certain players in an industry are able to curry favor from politicians and bureaucrats via subsidies, which skews the marketplace unfairly in their favor. And, allows them an unfair advantage in the marketplace while society picks up the tab via tax dollars. Unfortunately, the curse of involuntary taxation is that we inadvertently support activities and industries we dislike but cannot keep our rightfully earned monies from being shifted to them via tax revenue.

Some tend to view clean food as too expensive to buy. But I say it’s actually the most affordable. How so? All the costs are factored in, with none being hidden. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illness, of crop subsidies, of foreign oil, of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap. Small farms, by and large, are not eligible for government subsidy–nor do we want it. Therefore, we bear the true cost of bring our product to market. So, the choice is simple: You can buy honestly priced food that supports local, regenerative, sustainable farming. Or you can buy irresponsibly priced food wrecks the resources of the world and pads the pockets of multi-national giants.

The beauty of true free market capitalism is that we are not forced to buy the product of anyone (if we are it’s not a free market). Maybe the best way to cripple polluters is to boycott their products. Perhaps society shares the blame more than we’re willing to admit. After all, who made McDonalds the fast-food king of the planet if it wasn’t eaters of fast-food? And that’s the View from the Country.   

Quotes Worth Re-Quoting –

“Very simply, we subsidize high-fructose corn syrup in this country, but not carrots. While the surgeon general is raising alarms over the epidemic of obesity, the president is signing farm bills designed to keep the river of cheap corn flowing, guaranteeing that the cheapest calories in the supermarket will continue to be the unhealthiest.”― Michael Pollan

“We’re a nation with an eating disorder, and we know it. The multiple maladies caused by bad eating are taking a dire toll on our health–most tragically for our kids, who are predicted to be this country’s first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. That alone is a stunning enough fact to give us pause. So is a government policy that advises us to eat more fruits and vegetables, while doling out subsidies not to fruit and vegetable farmers, but to commodity crops destined to become soda pop and cheap burgers. The Farm Bill, as of this writing, could aptly be called the Farm Kill, both for its effects on small farmers and for what it does to us, the consumers who are financing it.” Barbara Kingsolver

“The ninety-nine cent price of a fast-food hamburger simply doesn’t take account of that meal’s true cost–to soil, oil, public health, the public purse, etc., costs which are never charged directly to the consumer but, indirectly and invisibly, to the taxpayer (in the form of subsidies), the health care system (in the form of food-borne illnesses and obesity), and the environment (in the form of pollution), not to mention the welfare of the workers in the feedlot and the slaughterhouse and the welfare of the animals themselves.”― Michael Pollan

Sam Fisher


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