Food Markets are Immoral and Dangerous
Food is essential. We all need to eat, multiple times a day and mostly on a schedule. Going hungry more than a few days makes people ill, and chronic hunger in childhood causes lasting developmental problems. One of the very first functions of a society is keeping it’s members fed.
Every society is three meals away from chaos — Lenin
Food can also be a luxury. The types of food we eat, and the places that will serve us food act as class signifiers. We may not need haute cuisine to live, but for some elites it’s an essential part of their sense of worth. Food thus sits in precarious balance. High society gets the finest food, but without enough food for the masses there is no society at all.
Most of the world uses markets to provision food for the populace. Is that wise given how unpredictably markets can act? Markets price products efficiently, but “efficient” prices could still be out of reach for some. Markets are also famous for booming and crashing in regular cycles. A boom in food could be a problem, but a crash in the food market — that’s a famine.
What’s to prevent ordinary market forces from causing mass death?
Food that’s too expensive leaves low-income citizens starving. Food that’s too cheap drives farmers out of business, and then next season we can find ourselves with not enough food.
This is why governments work to stabilize the prices of staple foods. If there’s a glut governments keep prices high by buying the excess. If there’s a shortage governments keep prices low by providing subsidies, either to distributors or consumers or both. These are important programs and everyone knows it.
Even the most neoliberal politician understands food cannot be entirely left to the vagaries of the free market. Despite the Republican kooks and bomb-throwers in congress, no one messes with the Farm Bill.
Even if food markets can be kept relatively stable (and we’ll come back to that), what about the morality of feeding people for profit?
Philosophers have identified situations in which we may be indifferent to action, and situations in which we are compelled to act. For example, if we see a child actively drowning and we might save them, we’re compelled to act. If you chose not to wade into the lake because it would ruin your new pants, you would rightly be judged a monster.
This same moral logic underlies the law that emergency rooms can’t turn away patients just because they can’t pay. This is a positive expression of humanistic values — if people are injured or ill, doctors and hospitals should care for them. First, do no harm.
In America, this runs afoul of the logic of markets. U.S. healthcare is a gigantic, profit-driven industry, so it naturally strives to keep costs low and prices high. Although there is a patchwork of other laws that help to offset it, this is a fundamental disconnect, one that some other wealthy countries have resolved by making healthcare primarily a government function.
Food is subject to the same contradiction, but worse. Places that serve food turn away hungry people every day. In every big city people walking to their fine dining restaurants step over the homeless and destitute who don’t have the money to buy food. Yet we don’t see this is a failure of our society. The patchwork system that tries to fill that gap is largely voluntary and entirely insufficient. Why are we not compelled to act?
Where are the laws that everyone is entitled to food even if they can’t afford it?
Markets make producers compete on efficiency. In food production this means more concentration into fewer corporations, more mono-culture, less diverse farming methods, more reliance on just-in-time supply chains, and the replacement of experts with unskilled labor. All of this market efficiency makes for food systems that are less robust and more fragile in the face of disruption.
And the mother of all disruptions is already here.
The climate catastrophe has already destabilized weather all over the world, resulting in droughts, floods, heatwaves, violent storms and freak cold snaps. This affects crop yields, reducing the supply of food in the market, and food prices have spiked as a result. As weather changes become more systematic the places where food can be grown will shift, and in a disrupted market prices will rise more. Food will have to be transported from less affected areas to those rendered infertile, further increasing the cost.
Governments can dampen some of rising food costs, effectively by paying part of what citizens are charged for food, but only during limited shocks. Even national governments lack the resources to subsidize food forever in a market system with no upper bound.
The real danger of a food shortage isn’t just runaway prices. If there are multiple compounding failures at once, or a cascade failure where a single failure triggers others, there can simply not be enough food. Stockpiles and emergency supplies are limited. Chronic food shortage leads to famine in fairly short order.
Markets, we’re told, are self-correcting. Rising food prices will lure more entrepreneurs into the food production business and the resulting increase in supply will lower prices.
Farmland is limited. Making more requires destroying ecosystems or suburbs. Technology could improve yields, but the market has already been doing that for decades. How much can deadlier pesticides or cramming more fossil-fuel energy into synthetic fertilizers do to grow more food in a chaotic climate? More expensive technologies might be created, but that would require high food prices to be permanent to justify the investment, exactly what our system cannot support.
High food prices would more likely attract Wall Street vultures. They’d create financial instruments to convert food production into assets which can be sold and resold. It would be advertised as a way to reduce the high cost of food, but instead just be another scheme to extract wealth from gambling on financial uncertainty, in this case by literally taking food out of our mouths. This is probably the only response markets might have.
Markets exist to make money, not to solve problems. As long as someone’s getting rich no one cares if people are being fed.
To ensure our common survival, our food systems need to be hardened against the ongoing climate catastrophe. To absorb the shocks of severe weather events and be robust to localized failures, we need more diverse crops and producers and farming methods, and more experts in the field working the problem.
Markets work against both resilient production systems and stable prices. Food is too important to leave to the vagaries of the market.