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Sun May 17, 2020, 09:14 AM

"Only when the tide goes out," Warren Buffett observed, "do you discover who's been swimming naked."

For our society, the Covid-19 pandemic represents an ebb tide of historic proportions, one that is laying bare vulnerabilities and inequities that in normal times have gone undiscovered. Nowhere is this more evident than in the American food system. A series of shocks has exposed weak links in our food chain that threaten to leave grocery shelves as patchy and unpredictable as those in the former Soviet bloc. The very system that made possible the bounty of the American supermarket—its vaunted efficiency and ability to “pile it high and sell it cheap”—suddenly seems questionable, if not misguided."

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How did we end up here? The story begins early in the Reagan administration, when the Justice Department rewrote the rules of antitrust enforcement: if a proposed merger promised to lead to greater marketplace “efficiency”—the watchword—and wouldn’t harm the consumer, i.e., didn’t raise prices, it would be approved. (It’s worth noting that the word “consumer” appears nowhere in the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, passed in 1890. The law sought to protect producers—including farmers—and our politics from undue concentrations of corporate power.)1 The new policy, which subsequent administrations have left in place, propelled a wave of mergers and acquisitions in the food industry. As the industry has grown steadily more concentrated since the 1980s, it has also grown much more specialized, with a tiny number of large corporations dominating each link in the supply chain. One chicken farmer interviewed recently in Washington Monthly, who sells millions of eggs into the liquified egg market, destined for omelets in school cafeterias, lacks the grading equipment and packaging (not to mention the contacts or contracts) to sell his eggs in the retail marketplace.2 That chicken farmer had no choice but to euthanize thousands of hens at a time when eggs are in short supply in many supermarkets.

When the number of Covid-19 cases in America’s slaughterhouses exploded in late April—12,608 confirmed, with forty-nine deaths as of May 11—public health officials and governors began ordering plants to close. It was this threat to the industry’s profitability that led to Tyson’s declaration, which President Trump would have been right to see as a shakedown: the president’s political difficulties could only be compounded by a shortage of meat. In order to reopen their production lines, Tyson and his fellow packers wanted the federal government to step in and preempt local public health authorities; they also needed liability protection, in case workers or their unions sued them for failing to observe health and safety regulations.

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A momentous question awaits us on the far side of the current crisis: Are we willing to address the many vulnerabilities that the novel coronavirus has so dramatically exposed? It’s not hard to imagine a coherent and powerful new politics organized around precisely that principle. It would address the mistreatment of essential workers and gaping holes in the social safety net, including access to health care and sick leave—which we now understand, if we didn’t before, would be a benefit to all of us. It would treat public health as a matter of national security, giving it the kind of resources that threats to national security warrant.

But to be comprehensive, this post-pandemic politics would also need to confront the glaring deficiencies of a food system that has grown so concentrated that it is exquisitely vulnerable to the risks and disruptions now facing us. In addition to protecting the men and women we depend on to feed us, it would also seek to reorganize our agricultural policies to promote health rather than mere production, by paying attention to the quality as well as the quantity of the calories it produces. For even when our food system is functioning “normally,” reliably supplying the supermarket shelves and drive-thrus with cheap and abundant calories, it is killing us—slowly in normal times, swiftly in times like these. The food system we have is not the result of the free market. (There hasn’t been a free market in food since at least the Great Depression.) No, our food system is the product of agricultural and antitrust policies—political choices—that, as has suddenly become plain, stand in urgent need of reform.

https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/06/11/covid-19-sickness-food-supply/

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Reply "Only when the tide goes out," Warren Buffett observed, "do you discover who's been swimming naked." (Original post)
kpete May 2020 OP
Hugin May 2020 #1
UpInArms May 2020 #2
empedocles May 2020 #3

Response to kpete (Original post)

Sun May 17, 2020, 09:27 AM

1. One of my all time favorite quotes...

I never in my wildest dreams thought it could be so readily applied to someone installed in the highest office of the land.

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Response to kpete (Original post)

Sun May 17, 2020, 09:54 AM

2. Living in the middle of a "farming" community

Has shown me how mindlessly farmers have become a part of a monoculture.

They are not being good stewards of the land ... the amounts of chemicals applied are appalling, the endless fields of corn and soybeans are horrifying

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Response to UpInArms (Reply #2)

Sun May 17, 2020, 10:59 AM

3. NYRB again. Sharply on target. Better than the many who have written on this.

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