Fighting Business with Business: Building the Conversation on Sustainable Food | Civil Eats

Fighting Business with Business: Building the Conversation on Sustainable Food

Like it or not, capitalism and business are at the heart of what makes America tick. They exist using a language all their own, influencing our economic system through terms like government spending, taxes, investment, profits, quarterly earnings, debt, revenues and growth.

And when capitalism and business speaks, America listens, particularly when the news is big – from politicians, to CEO’s, to the average Joe. When taxpayers were asked to dish out billions in the case of the recent banking and auto industry bailouts, ears perked and immediate action was taken to bring about long overdue and necessary change. Business could not continue under threat and no stone was to be left unturned. The banking sector was overhauled and policed while the auto industry was told to go electric or go home.

In both of these laborious examples of change, are there lessons that the sustainable food movement can learn to further its invaluable (and arguably far more laudable) agenda? Could our movement use these latest examples of change, attention and action within the economic and business realms to push through its goals?

Or can it be happening already? Take for instance the most recent case (and latest round) over the taxing of sodas and other sweetened beverages – a food category laden with processing and central to the debate over high fructose corn syrup – where business rhetoric coupled with a state of urgency has gotten a great deal of airplay, from CNN to the Colbert Report.

When Americans heard that their tax dollars will be going toward a comprehensive health-care system overhaul at a cost of nearly $1.2 trillion and that taxing sweetened drinks (a large culprit in the rise of obesity and chronic disease in the nation) could make up for about $24 billion of that, goals of the sustainable food movement reached the halls of Congress.

Although the sweetened beverage and soda tax debate is far from over and the idea may prove to be one of the fifteen options for bankrolling health care reform listed by the Senate Finance Committee that gets thrown to the wayside, at least an important subject of the sustainable food movement was heard. And this could just be the beginning. The soda tax debate could be used as platform for further and deeper analysis of our food system in the coming years.

And how about the salmonella scare? The real strength of food sustainability’s goals came not so much during the outbreak as it did in the aftermath. When it was unveiled that the recall could cost producers and small businesses up to $1 billion in economic losses, 2,100 products were pulled off shelves (one of the largest recalls in U.S. history), 683 sickened people needed care, PR budgets were blown, stock prices plummeted, and millions would be needed in settlement costs, the blame game began to turn toward better regulation of our food system and a reassessment of the FDA. Here again, sustainable food began to hit the mainstream – or at least peered its head a bit more.

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In both of these examples, the language of business and economics helped open the door for the case of sustainable food and changes to our food system. How much more could be achieved if sustainability proponents used business rhetoric as a tool and powerful ally in the transmission of their ideas? Why not fight business with business?

This can be accomplished in light of the two greatest challenges facing the Obama Administration today: health-care and climate change. Sustainable food advocates must be ready and waiting in the wings for these debates, business-speak in tow, for climate change and health-care are undoubtedly the next Bear Stearns and General Motors, but on colossal scales. And so incredibly enmeshed are the goals of sustainable food with the foreboding perils of climate change and health care that these could be the next great opportunities for change to be made in our food system.

We don’t need Michael Pollan and others to tell us again. Diet plays a large role in chronic disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S.  Chronic diseases are responsible for about 75% of health care costs or about $975 billion. Obesity costs New York state $242 million per year in public and private medical expenses and diabetes patients pay nearly $2000 per year in drug store expenses. And a similar list can be made for our climate woes.

These facts provide some great ammunition. We can discuss taxes. Required government spending for these problems will affect not only our generation’s tax burden, but the tax burden of future generations as well. We can discuss investment, job creation and revenue streams. Just as the auto industry is leaning on electric vehicles and land is being transformed into space for harnessing wind energy, sustainable food systems and processes can be assessed in the transformation to new green economic sectors and green jobs. And we can discuss growth. Sustainable food need not be anti-science and anti-innovation, it’s model can instead lead to a new ways of making and distributing food in the 21st century.

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Speaking and communicating in the language of business and economics, unfortunate or not, is a necessity in the fight to change our food supply. Whether discussing the morality over school lunches, the ideals of locally grown and distributed food, or fair and decent wages and labor conditions, business rhetoric must be kept at the tip of our tongues. Whether good or bad, economics and business are and forever will be at the heart of how our country operates and communication of messages will work a whole lot better when money takes the drivers seat. Just remember, taxes will always get ‘em talking.

Pooja Renee Mottl, a former finance professional, is a diet & wellness consultant and writer exploring the links between sustainable food, fitness, preventative health and public policy. She holds a Bachelor in Economics from the University of Michigan and a Masters degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics. Read more >

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  1. Absolutely spot on. Sustainable eating and food should not shy away from the topic of economics. It should be linked inextricably from it, in fact.

    Great post.
  2. I am a generally healthy person and the cost of my not-so-great insurance is now about $5000. Couple that with the way that most people eat and don't take care of themselves, makes me feel sick.

    We need to take the economic cost of chronic disease, lost work days, and everything else related into every equation for sustainable eating. Eating poor quality food is obviously not sustainable -- who doesn't see that?

    Thank you for this post. Count me in as part of the group willing to fight for helping, healing and changing the system.
  3. John Miller
    Corporations are already using sustainability in their strategies so I found little value in this post. The real issue at hand is proper science and evaluation -- not a housewife movement for things like organic farming which have proven to be far worse for the environment than conventional.

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