No Free Lunch

No Free Lunch

Milton Friedman, the famous economist, once argued that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” He was talking about opportunity cost but I want to write today about modern industrial food practices and how true this popular little slogan is . Since time immormial, mankind has raised livestock on pasture. “Cows eat grass” is what every 2 year old is taught, in those oversized books with the thick pages and glossy pictures. Yet somewhere along the way, cows stopped eating grass. Instead they were born on small farms, lived like normal cows, and around 8 months old were rounded up, shipped West and arrived in a feedlot. Once there, they were packed into pens. For some, more used to drinking from running streams than troughs, they became dangerously dehydrated. They stood in their own filth, all day. No new pasture for them, only the same concrete floor that you can’t see because of the manure and urine. Their hooves started to rot, sometimes they even fell off. And throughout all of this they were fed grain. Pounds and pounds of it (some studies say 13# of grain produces 1# of beef). Grain laced with low doses of antibiotics was the staple of their diet. Antibiotics were the key to it all. It cures the animals of shipping fever. It allows them to be confined in such small spaces, in such large numbers. It even neutralized the increasing acidity of their stomachs due to the amount of grain they are being fed and amazingly enough, it spurred them onto eat even more grain. They grew fatter and fatter and fatter. “Marbling” they called it in the grocery store. Sounds like lipstick on a pig. They should’ve called it like it was but “Fat, Diseased Animals” doesn’t ring quite so well. Efficiency and economies of scale merge perfectly together and what’s not to love? The Second World War was over, the population boomed, America emerged a world power with the per capita incomes to prove it and the country was hungry for meat. Gas was cheap and corn was cheaper. It made sense, economically speaking, to raise a calf in Virginia, ship him to Missouri, fatten him, slaughter him, package him, and ship him to grocery stores in Virginia. In many cases the animal traveled far more than the farmer that raised it.

It’s nothing less than a modern miracle that so few people go to bed hungry at night. Yes hunger still exists, yet we live in a time of plenty. We have more stuff than any civilization in history and our food is cheaper than in any other time. A fast food meal costs less than 1 hour of work at minimum wage. Let that sink in. For less than an hour of work, we can afford to buy a meal. It wasn’t long ago that a meal took countless hours of toil, the fruition of our labors not materializing for months. Now if you are hungry you swing by the drive-thru. A couple dollars and a couple minutes is all it takes. When you think about it, this is remarkable. It really is. I read once that we produce enough food to comfortably feed every person on Earth and we would, if not for political and logistical issues. In this age of plenty we have forgotten what every generation before us has known, nothing is free and sometimes the price we pay isn’t monetary. Our miracle of modern agriculture that allows us time to pursue so many other pursuits beyond mere subsistence, is actually killing us. How fitting Milton Freeman referenced free lunch. Because our lunch is actually giving us obesity and diabetes and a shorter lifespan. My generation is the first in the history of humanity that is projected to live shorter lifespans than our parents. That’s remarkable. Guess why? Because of our diets. We have sent men to the moon, we explore the heavens, we tote around a device that with the press of a button can draw from the summation of history, and yet we are dying from our food. Folks used to die from hunger, now we die from having plenty. We have forgotten something even our children know, “that there aint no such thing as free lunch”!

Breck Light
March 14th, 2014