Food Webs and Free Trade

Image shows people buying food at a market.Like Economies, Food Webs Function to Exchange Resources

Did you ever wonder how a food web resembles an economy? Both are always changing.  Both are living systems.  Both function best when diversity is present…

Some argue that food webs are nature’s economy, or even the first economy.  This is because food webs are defined by resource exchange.   The trade of air, water, and nutrients in a dynamic food web functions like the trade of labor, resources, and currency that drive our economy. In fact, we might say that economies based on gold, paper currency, or cryptocurrency are simply anthropogenic extensions of actual food webs that dictate how resources are managed in nature.good

Food webs fail when biodiversity is insufficient to ensure the recycling of resources.  Economies fail when business becomes too centralized to provide the diversity that mobilizes resources to all sectors of society.

In industrial societies, economics fits directly into any discussion of food webs because economics defines how we as people interact with our environment. After all, as long as we continue to eat food, we are part of food webs. And as long as food and natural resources are sold in the marketplace, our economy impacts our food webs.

In the cornerstones model of healthy food systems, we have identified freedom as part of the secret sauce that makes a food system function. This is because freedom to self-express, engage in trade, and pursue our independent dreams creates the natural diversity and innovation that is essential for efficient resource exchange.  This resource exchange maintains both our food webs and our economy.

Life and Liberty are Interdependent

While we often think of life and liberty as independent conditions, the fact is, some degree of liberty is essential to life itself.  Extreme restrictions on our ability to engage in business, express our needs, and care for our health can not only reduce our quality of life,they can also reduce our lifespan.  For example, Evelyn Patterson’s 2013 study of prison inmates indicated a 2-year reduction in life expectancy for each year of incarceration.  But does this relationship apply outside prison walls?

Evidence from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 suggests that it does.  Restrictions on travel and social interaction that limited services to uninfected seniors, pregnant moms, and young children were, in some cases, life-threatening.  Even less vulnerable populations suffered health effects ranging from depression to weight gain and heart problems.  These effects resulted from increased stress and reduced access to healthcare, social networks, and even groceries.   While some will argue that the effects on life and liberty were necessary to reduce the spread of a life-threatening disease, none can argue that these restrictions on freedom can also cost lives.

This relationship between life and liberty explains why men and women will put their lives on the line to rebel against oppressive governments.   When life is sufficiently threatened by oppression, the risk of being killed in a fight for independence becomes the most pragmatic choice available.  This timeless sentiment was captured at the time of the American Revolutionary War in Patrick Henry’s impassioned quote, “Give me liberty, or give me death.”

Free Trade is Essential to Life, Liberty, and Food Webs

Free trade is a key component of freedom.  When Adam Smith wrote his classic, The Wealth of Nations*, he was acting as part of the same international movement that inspired American Revolutionaries.  Imperialistic governments throughout Europe were imposing tariffs and other restrictions that were costing people their livelihoods. If you cannot support your family, your life is threatened.  This desire for freedom ignited the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolution, and various Abolitionist movements that reduced widespread,  institutionalized slavery.  Smith, however, suggested that this freedom could be achieved peacefully through trade.

Today, Smith’s vision is often clouded with attacks on capitalism and large corporations.   Attackers of free enterprise remind us of Upton Sinclair’s Jungle*, or Gillam’s Whitewash*,  while ignoring the government supports, subsidies, and protections that allow corporate giants to monopolize the markets in the first place.  It is not clear that Smith’s ideal has ever been effectively documented outside of a natural food web.

Regulations Can Have Unintended Consequences

In modern society, the free trade described by Smith is usually inhibited by regulations that seem, on the surface, to benefit the public.  These benefits can be deceptive.

Think for example about regulations that force the pasteurization of milk.  Admittedly, this is a contentious subject, since most would agree there are good reasons to pasteurize milk.   Preventing milk from spoiling is a good thing.   Pasteurization helps accomplish this goal.

But regulations mandating pasteurization were based on limited scientific data.  Today, most biochemists recognize that while pasteurized milk may be free of pathogens, pasteurized milk is also less biologically active than raw milk.   Enzymes and antibodies naturally present in milk are denatured during pasteurization, reducing the quality of the end product.  This means that while pasteurized milk is clearly preferable to spoiled milk, it may also be inferior to fresh, raw milk harvested from a clean dairy using appropriate handling practices.  How much of the lactose intolerance observed today would be eliminated simply by having access to fresh raw milk with active digestive enzymes?

Viewed through an economic lens, we must note that regulations mandating the pasteurization of milk helped to promote the industrialization of the dairy industry.  Pasteurization allowed larger quantities of milk to be stored, shipped and sold far from home.  This led to the decline of small, local dairies, and increased dependence on a few large producers.

Fewer Regulations Allow the Best of Both Worlds

In regions where consumers can choose between pasteurized and raw milk, most consumers still opt for pasteurization.  Pasteurized milk stores and travels well.  Most consumers want these benefits.

However, a solid minority of consumers seek raw milk, claiming health benefits that are supported by biochemical analysis of raw milk, and by user testimonials. These consumers support local dairies, creating an important, small-scale economy that adds value and diversity to our food system.  Like all serious producers, these local dairies work closely with consumers to ensure high-quality milk products free of unwanted contaminants.

By allowing consumer choice to dictate milk processing options, the less regulated communities offer choices to consumers, increase the resilience of their food systems, and add income to local economies.

Regulations surrounding milk pasteurization are just one example of numerous regulations that disrupt food systems by inhibiting free trade.  Consider school lunch regulations.  In providing free food, these regulations instill eating habits that favor heavily packaged, processed foods. This has a lasting, negative effect on children’s health.

While most government regulations on food may be passed with good intentions, the cumulative effects of these regulations usually detract from human health and nutrition, or reduce the profitability of local farms indirectly.  Once passed, these regulations are difficult to change.  As a result, food systems slowly bleed to death.  Small farmers sell their land to developers.   Adults with bad diets find themselves with food allergies, diabetes or heart disease in their 20’s and 30’s. Onlookers fail to connect the dots between regulations that changed the industry, and the impacts these regulations have on the food web as a whole.

To reverse this trend, it is important for individuals to read between the lines of any proposed legislation.  Sure, we all want safe food.  But will a law passed by a distant governing agency achieve that goal? Or should this be handled closer to home? Natural food webs have utilized free trade agreements for billions of years. True, sometimes a deal goes bad.  But a better system has yet to present itself.

*Links marked with asterisks will take you to affiliate web sites.  If you make purchases at these sites, we may earn commissions.  These commissions help support our efforts to restore healthy food systems.

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