When my farm was first starting up in 2013, the farm-to-table community around Charlottesville was all abuzz about a promising local startup called Relay Foods. This was an online grocery store that, at least initially, sourced foods almost exclusively from farms in Virginia with the idea that “the farmers [are] the celebrities promoting their foods, as it should be.” Relay would just be the thing that brought the farms and the foodies together.
At a farmers’ conference in our county’s administrative building, a Relay rep reiterated this point about farmers being the center of the story, and even announced their new website would give each farm its own page to talk about its story and its products. A childhood friend of my wife’s was involved with the company at a very early stage and talked about it very convincingly. The company was attracting scores of young, idealistic employees committed to the idea of local agriculture.
David Friedberg is a serial entrepreneur and investor in Silicon Valley, having started a number of notable companies including The Climate Corporation, a climate-prediction startup, Eatsa, an automated quinoa-based fast food chain with no cashiers, and Metromile, a pay-per-mile auto insurance company.
An ex-Googler with a degree in astrophysics, Friedberg was involved in launching products like AdWords and Gmail. In 2006, he quit Google to co-found The Climate Corporation, which builds weather prediction tools for farmers. He sold the company to Monsanto for $1.1 billion in 2013.
I told a story a little while ago and received an interesting comment; here’s most of it:
Local food, organic food, “real” food produces less per unit of land farmed without a demonstrable improvement in nourishment. Do you really want to have to expand the amount of land in cultivation to feed the earth? Wholesale going “local” means having more limited diets. As long as this is limited to zealots and those who want to be accepted by their organic friends, and for whom the amount of their income spent on food is negligible, that’s great. It’s a lifestyle expense. But if you want to feed the prisons, the hospitals, the schools, and do it on a budget, this is an awful, awful approach.
Last night I watched a TedX talk that successfully induced fear into its audience about how we are being betrayed, deceived, and cheated into buying food that is raised inhumanely, unethically, and ultimately, is dangerous for our bodies.
The speaker dubbed the collective group behind this deception the “fiberatti — a secret society of people trained in deceptive food marketing.”
He first attacked the dairy industry, calling attention to the differences between the rolling grassy hills portrayed in milk marketing campaigns and the scenes of a real dairy. He then moved on to speak of the fiberatti’s influences on pork, poultry, crop farming, and the beef industry.
Last night, my wife and I watched a Redbox movie on the tiny 15” television in our bedroom. It’s called “War Dogs,” and it’s about a pair of 20-something arms dealers who have wacky and unlawful adventures in procuring weapons for the U.S. military. The movie’s anti-heroes make a living by scouring a website that should produce a cold sweat in anyone that’s ever been involved in any way with government contracting: FedBizOpps. This is a website that lists practically every requisition for products and services needed by the Federal government — from office supplies to military hardware — and invites contractors to bid on the work. After watching the movie it occurred to me that the government probably uses the site to buy food as well, so I went digging and came across an object lesson in why Local has a gaping hole in its strategy for global domination of agriculture.
Big Food, Tiny Prices
Interestingly, nearly all of the food requisitions I came across were for the Bureau of Prisons. Even the small orders were for staggering amounts of food: 5,000 lbs of ground beef here, 2,000 lbs of chicken leg quarters there, 2,500 lbs of turkey breast over here. There was one contract for a straight bid on 20,000 lbs of beef burritos. The smaller offerings typically involved at least 10,000 lbs of meat. The larger orders shot north of a quarter-million pounds. And the only thing more shocking than the amount of food involved was the price.The most recent award (January 6, as of this writing) for well over 100,000 lbs of various meats was awarded to two suppliers for a combined total of about $30,000. Another, awarded just 24 hours prior, involved 127,000 lbs of beef, pork, and chicken plus about an equal weight of frozen vegetables and various packaged food, including 70,000 lbs of pancakes. This one was awarded across nine suppliers at a total value of about $190K. Fun sidebar: $50K of this was awarded to a company in Texas that paid a $100K fine in 2002 after pleading guilty to selling adulterated meat.
This is staggeringly cheap food being sold to the federal government by an awful lot of companies with the word “Importers” in their names. I was surprised by how few of the procurement items made any mention of a requirement for USDA inspection.
Cattle are cheap and ranchers are struggling, but the price of your steak hasn’t changed.
Cattle prices are extremely low right now, and ranchers across the country are struggling to feed their herds and their families. But you probably haven’t noticed a commensurate drop in the price of you beef at the market, have you.