Only time will tell if we're at the point in the food debate to pop the taboo question: how come, despite widespread grousing about rising prices, our food is so bizarrely cheap?[rssbreak]
Sure, bread and pasta are more expensive these days, and so are rice and tomatoes, but face facts: we're spending less of our income on edibles today than we did in the 50s.
To give credit where it's due, Time Magazine, a showpiece of glossy conventional wisdom, is the first mass-?audience publication to broach the economics behind this oddity in its August 20 issue, Getting Real About The High Price Of Cheap Food.
It's now legit to raise questions about the secret social and foreign policy agenda that drives a food system based on cheapness - a deliberate political decision that's gone unnoticed and unchallenged by both the right and left for over 150 years.
A moment's reflection will tell anyone that food bought anywhere in North America cannot possibly be as cheap as it seems. Can a banana that's been planted, tended, harvested, packed and shipped halfway around the world actually cost half what it costs to mail a letter from one side of town to the other?
But a moment's reflection is precisely what cheap food is designed to suppress.
For those who don't have Time to read the original, here's the gist of the argument. The U.S. ag industry produces "unlimited quantities of meats and grains at remarkably cheap prices," says Time writer Bryan Walsh. But the hidden price tag comes in the form of "eroded farmland, hollowed-?out countryside, scarier germs, higher health costs - and bland taste."
Until the 1950s, North Americans and Europeans spent as much on food as on shelter, about a quarter of their incomes. Nowadays, food, most of it ready-?to-?eat, costs about 10 per cent of most people's income.
A good chunk of that price drop can be explained by farm subsidies, especially the $5 billion a year fertilizing the U.S. corn crop, Walsh says, which in turn gets converted into dirt-cheap prices for all the things corn goes into, from cornflakes and pop sweetener to meat.
Now, this isn't really true in Canada. Our feds don't throw money at big farmers the way the U.S does. The problem is that the dominant global producer to the south sets the price for everyone else; the U.S. is the Walmart of the international food market.
Walsh says the food system is based on "selective forgetting" about how our food got so bargain-?basement, and I'll add that there's some historical amnesia to all this, too.
The final insult is that over time, governments in Britain and North America have chosen to allow housing costs to rise exorbitantly - mostly by refusing to subsidize low-?cost housing, which serves to heat up the whole market.
So we're paying way more of our paycheques for a roof over our heads at the same time that governments deliberately cheapen what's on our dinner tables - the opposite of what more progressive continental Europeans do.
This was the strategy as far back as the British empire after the 1840s, when impoverished workers were kept alive on cheap sugar and grains from Canada and other colonies.
Instead of propping up living standards with affordable housing, the Brits opted for cheap food.
In this century, particularly after the 1970s, cheap meat was added to the diet of cheap sugar and grain in Anglo-America. Fast food joints prepare meals of salt, animal fat and carbs so cheaply that the low cost of food plays the same role in Anglo-America that cheap servants play in the developing world - providing affordable treats to middle-income workers by super-?exploiting people at the bottom rung in the food industry.
For all that Julia Child thought she helped the servantless American middle classes eat well, budget food helps them even more.
The foreign policy side of the story relates to U.S., and to some extent Canuck efforts to find a counterpoint to the power granted Arab and other nations by direct access to petrol. North America, unlike those oil-producing nations, has cheap food - so cheap that many other countries are dependent on it. America for example is a major exporter of rice.
This is the global geopolitical role played by cheap food originally masterminded by Richard Nixon henchman Henry Kissinger. And Canada is getting dragged along.
These unspoken realities behind food politics explain why food costs what it does, why food producers, by far the largest occupational grouping in the world, account for the great majority of the world's poor, hungry, nutrient-?deficient and diseased, and why - despite the "penny wise, pound foolish" damage to personal and environmental health - it's taken so long to start a serious discussion about it.
Nothing so powerful as an idea who's come to Time.