October, 1989

Fruits of Thought

A Blessing In Disguise

For most of human history, the overwhelming human experience has been that of scarcity. The desperate effort people exerted to find more, make more, and have more was motivated not so much by greed and avaricious personality as by the real world situation that most people did not have enough to live comfortably, or at all. Even those fortunate enough to be well-off knew that their good fortune could be reversed. Just one bad harvest, just one bad storm, one cruel act of nature could wipe out their belongings and leave them destitute.

Today, however, the world has changed. The defining experience of people in developed countries of the world today is affluence, not scarcity. Whole generations have grown up never knowing poverty. It is this overarching experience of abundance that is at the root of the food safety crisis the industry has experienced in the past year. It’s this abundance that explains why, despite the industry’s best efforts, the controversy over food safety is a long-term problem. That will not vanish soon. In fact, dealing with food safety issues has become such an integral part of the produce industry that it is better we drop the word crisis and begin using the word condition, which implies a set of circumstances we can expect to live with for a long time.

Now, let me advance this discussion with a reference to, of all things, the television show thirtysomething. When the Hollywood stars all had their controversial press conference on Alar, some of the most memorable emotion was shown by Mel Harris, who plays Hope on that TV show. She was indignant and contemptuous at the possibility of the negligible risk standard being used to determine if a pesticide was acceptable for use. She felt, obviously quite strongly, that only absolutely no risk would be acceptable for her and her child.

It is one of those bizarre twists of fate that the actress from thirtysomething should be so outspoken on this issue. For this TV program has become something of a psychiatrist’s couch for America’s younger adults. In the show, which deals with 30-ish couples and their fears and problems with young children, divorce etc., one of the shocking things is that money never seems to be a problem. Even when people lose their jobs or business in the show, the issue is framed as whether the characters should “sell out” and take a job they don’t like or work for an unkind person. There is never any thought that someone might go hungry.

As in the TV show, so it is in real life. The vast bulk of people are not afraid of going hungry. It is this fact, this immunity to the prospect of scarcity that makes the produce industry vulnerable to attack on all fronts.

For it was the need for more food production, that made the farmer a hero in America. The man who turned wilderness into productive land, whose bounty fed not only his country, but the world, is a powerful figure in American mythology.

But, if everyone has more food than they need, and if the biggest problem, for most people, is eating less so they won’t become obese, how much credit will consumers give the farmer? How much will the consumer heed warnings about regulations causing a scarcity of food or even a reduction in the quality and variety of produce available?

The simple fact of the matter is that if consumers do not fear scarcity or higher prices (and they do not), then consumers will naturally and continually side with those who claim they can achieve other goals of concern.

This year we saw this most graphically with the Alar scare. There is simply no indication that consumers believe that eliminating Alar will make apples unavailable. Nor do consumers believe that the quality of apples will decline or that apple prices will significantly rise as a result of the elimination of Alar. So, if Alar poses any risk, or even any possibility of risk, it is logical that consumers would support not using the chemical.

This process will probably continue with other chemicals about which safety allegations are made for the same reason. Consumers care about their health and the health of their loved ones, but they do not anticipate any negative effects from banning chemicals. So they will not see a reason to take any risk.

The industry has spent a lot of time and money fighting the fires of food safety. Though we’ve managed to put them out for now, the public’s sensitivity to the issues has been raised. It is not at all clear that the next time around public attention to produce will not be even more critical and may not lead to greater restrictions on the use of chemicals and other restrictions on the produce trade.

Perhaps, however, there is a bright side to all this. The constant cry of the produce industry is and has been for years a complaint of too much production. The best and sometimes only hope for countless farmers has been praying that misfortune should befall other farmers – that there should be a shortage rather than the usual surplus.

Fate sometimes works in strange ways. Perhaps restrictions on chemical use and produce handling practices, which at first glance seem destined to hurt the industry, may be its salvation. If new cultivation practices reduce production and relieve the market of the giant surpluses that often exist, if supply and demand come more into balance, is it possible that restrictions on the industry could restore prosperity to the farm sector? And might higher prices on the farm level just mean more juicy margins at wholesale and retail?  pb