Let’s say your beliefs include the notion that hard work will bring good things to you, that the golden rule is a nice idea though it may occasionally have limits, and that it’s more or less every person for him or herself. Your overall guiding force is not altruism, but you’re not immoral; you’re a good citizen, and you don’t break any major laws. This could describe many of us; most, maybe.
Now suppose you’re in the business of producing, marketing or selling tobacco or firearms — products known to sometimes kill others. You need not be a corporate executive or a criminal arms dealer; you might be a retailer of cigarettes, a person who sells them along with magazines, a marketer, a gun shop owner. In any case, your conscience is clear: you’re selling regulated legal products and, as long as you’re obeying the regulations, you’re doing nothing illegal. (“Wrong” is a judgment call.)
You sleep well, believing that the government would further regulate your product if it were necessary. And if regulations were to change, you’d change with them. But to act otherwise — to hold back your energy from production or sales just because of moral or social pressure — would be foolish, and put you at a competitive disadvantage.
For many years after knowing about the lethal nature of tobacco, our government did little or nothing to limit its consumption. That’s changed gradually in the last 50 years, and more dramatically since 1998, because of successful lawsuits and because the Food and Drug Administration often tries to pursue its mission. (For a variety of reasons not worth going into, firearms are more challenging to regulate. Let’s leave it at that for now.)
O.K., so suppose we pass legislation that discourages you from producing or selling tobacco or firearms while at the same time actively encouraging you — supporting you — to change to producing apples or cotton or washing machines or screwdrivers; as long as you could see a way to increase profit, you’d probably look at the new opportunity. After all, it’s not as if you want to produce agents of death. You want to make the best living you can selling stuff that’s legal and that people want. Markets change, and flexibility is important, and the government can and does affect your business, even if it’s by inaction.
Now let’s apply this same way of thinking to the major food categories — and for the purposes of this discussion there are only three — and what it’s like to be a farmer or producer, or a manufacturer, processor, distributor, retailer of this stuff. Again, you’re agnostic about what you sell, but you’re profit-conscious. And the government can and does affect your business; it can help your business (“you didn’t build it yourself”) or hurt it, as it should if your business is harming others.
Let’s call the first food group industrially produced animal products. Producing and selling as much as possible is the way to go here, since the penalties for damage your product does to human and animal health and to the environment (including climate) are virtually nonexistent. You can treat the animals as you like and damn the consequences, from salmonella contamination to antibiotic resistance to water contamination to, of course, cruelty. There are even incentives, in the form of subsidized prices for animal feed.
The next group is most easily labeled junk food; you might call it “hyperprocessed.” This comprises aisles and aisles of “edibles” sold in supermarkets and restaurants, and is often “food” that’s unrecognizable as such, ranging from soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages to things like chicken nuggets and Pringles and tens of thousands of other examples. These are mostly made from commodity crops, especially corn, soybeans and wheat. Federal subsidies abound in many forms here, from direct payments (in theory, these are ending, to be replaced by a bizarre form of crop insurance) to the ethanol mandate to virtually unregulated land use that permits toxic overapplication of fertilizers and other chemicals. There is also that same failure to recognize the public health and environmental costs of what is probably the least healthy diet a wealthy nation could devise. You could even say that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, usually called food stamps) acts as a subsidy to junk food, since nothing limits using food stamps for food that promotes disease. It’s worth noting that for the past century the bulk of university research, much of it paid for with tax dollars, has gone into figuring out how to increase the yield of the crops and processes that turn out this junk that sickens.
Then, in the third group, there’s everything else, from fruits and vegetables — absurdly called “specialty crops” by the Department of Agriculture — to animals raised in sustainable and even humane ways. But here, disincentives abound: farmers may be encouraged to allow some land to go fallow, but not to be planted in specialty crops, and research money, subsidies, insurance, market promotion and access to credit are directed toward industrial food production, distribution and sales. These inefficiencies make most of this real food, which is health-promoting and closer to environmentally neutral, appear to be more expensive. (Only “appear,” though. If you account for the costs of environmental and public health damage, industrially produced junk food and animal products actually cost more.)