Secret Life of Groceries: Book Club Discussion Wrap Up Thread

We’re now reading into The Secret Life of Groceries by Benjamin Lorr. In two weeks, we’ll be kicking off What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte and out of the wonderful indie publishing house Belt Publishing.

This week, we’re wrapping up the book! Some of you sent along questions for Benjamin that I have passed on to him. He was kind enough to tackle them. Here are his answers:

Is Ben eating differently after writing the book?

Not really. At least that's the answer I want to give. I left the book feeling very suspicious of the idea that we can buy our way into solutions. The idea that my choices as a consumer are capable of creating a better world - or that we can solve global issues by thinking about our personal diet - is incredibly seductive. But also deeply self-serving and short-sighted. It might work in a smaller world. But my experience writing the book, led me to think there are too many layers to our commodity chain for it to be effective. Marketers are brilliant at co-opting our good intentions, delivering us the pleasure of virtue without the teeth of meaningful reform. So, while my eating habits haven't changed much, writing the book did change my advocacy. Unions. International solidarity. Empowering workers to take lead in certifying the products they make. Reforming the trade treaties that underpin our globalized world. Funding enforcement, not sure of auditors, but police investigators to catch violators. That's what I want changed. Not my food choices at checkout. 

But that's the answer I want to give. In reality, I don't really eat much Thai shrimp anymore. It may well be counterproductive, punishing Thai industry for the exact reforms it needed to make. But I also can't get some of the people and voices I met out of my head. And would prefer not to encounter them while I eat.   

Where was the most interesting place you went?

Myanmar. Without question. I was only there for a short period of time, and I was working constantly, trying to re-trace Tun Lin's journey from his village to Thailand. But it was fascinating. Just like the trucking chapter, I thought there was a whole book to be written on it. The Myanmar I found was incredibly dynamic, changing minute to minute, where Ox drawn carts and rolling blackouts existed alongside new Western style malls. It had thriving street entrepreneurs, active visible indigenous groups, displaced internal migrants, creepy ex pats, mercenary industrialists, military men... I can't say I even scratched the surface.   

My question is why didn’t the author look into the field workers in his investigations. Seems like this is another production step where the quest for low cost leads to exploitation. Specifically fruit and vegetable workers in California, Texas, Florida. We all love our low price strawberries, but shouldn’t we be willing to pay more so the labor is fairly compensated? Trucking is just one of the elements with cost pressures in the production chain.

This is exactly right, and the biggest reason I didn't cover it is that so many of the conditions in the field are parallel to those described with fishers in Thailand. I hope that people will read the Thai section less as an extraordinary example of abuse in Thailand and more as a microcosm for what the bottom of almost every commodity chains can look like. Most definitely including the ones in America. The market pressures for convenience, low price, and continuous availability press down on primary producers - whether farmers, fishers, or manufacturers - across the chain. While the specifics vary, the big themes can all be found in Thailand. The other big reason I didn't get into it is that there has been a lot of brilliant reporting here, from Eric Schlosser's In the Strawberry Fields to Barry Easterbrook's Tomatoland. I encourage anyone who wants to learn about commodity pressure in America to start there.  

(This next one is from me!)

I personally would also love to know if you still get seafood from Whole Foods now. 

Sure! The Whole Foods seafood counter was a perfect metaphor for me precisely because it was completely hygienic and clean on top - for us consumers - while still being disgusting below - in places that were out of sight and out of mind. But let's be real. It's potent as a metaphor. And the whole point of the metaphor is that the food on top is hygienic and clean. In the non-metaphorical world, if you say you want your seafood to come from a place that has no bad smells associated with it ever, what you are actually saying is you want to live in a different universe with different physical laws around entropy and decay. Which is to say, I don't think that Whole Foods seafood is any worse than their competitors. 

So, what’s your final verdict on the book? Permanently turned off by the grocery store? Or more in love with the diversified supply chain guaranteeing you stay contently fed than ever before?

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