I’ve been reading through William T. Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (listed on the left).

In his first chapter, he discusses in part the unknowns of our economic interactions. Free-market capitalists, he notes, believe that exchanges in the market are free because all the information that the consumer needs is in the price, thus there is no coercion to purchase any given item from any given seller. But what kind of info do we find in prices besides how much items are going to cost us? What we don’t find out, and this is Cavanaugh’s point, is how much the product cost to make, who made it, where it was made, what the working conditions are where it was made, etc.

To elaborate using the example of the beef products we purchase, he cites an article from the New York Times Magazine entitled “Power Steer” by Michael Pollan. The original article is an engagement in the debate between which is better – corn-fed cows or pastured cows. I’m not willing to engage in this debate per se, but it’s worth looking into in light of this article. The information that Cavanaugh highlights is definitely not available in the price. I’ve posted an excerpt from Cavanaugh that gets at the main points of the Pollan article.

When one buys a steak at a large chain grocery store…all the information one needs in order to make a free decision – assuming that the steak is not simply defective or contaminated – is conveyed by the price. The true story behind the shrink wrap, however, is more consequential than [we typically believe]. A calf might spend the first few months of its life eating grass on the range, but typically the rest of its short life is spent in a feedlot, ankle deep in manure. By nature, cattle are equipped to turn the grass that grows naturally on arid land into high-quality protein. However, allowing cattle to graze is considered inefficient these days, because it takes too long. Today’s beef cattle in the United States go from 80 to 1200 pounds in just fourteen months on a crash diet of corn, protein supplements, and drugs. They are given hormone implants (banned in Europe) to promote growth. Their calories come from corn, which is cheap and convenient but depends on the use of lots of petroleum products, and wreaks havoc on their ruminant digestive system, which is designed for grass. The only way to keep cattle from dying of bloating, acidosis, or abscessed livers as they fatten up on a grain diet is to give them steady doses of antibiotics. Still, many strains of bacteria survive. In the past, we could count on the fact that such bacteria, raised in a cow’s natural-pH digestive tract, would be killed off by the acids in the human stomach. But now that the cow’s digestive tract has been acidified by a corn diet, acid-tolerant strains such as E. coli have developed; when those are found in our food, they can kill us. When the cattle are slaughtered, they are caked with feedlot manure, which is where the E. coli reside. Rather than altering beef cattle’s diet, or keeping them from living in their own feces or slowing down the processing speed of the slaughter lines, all of which are considered inefficient and impractical, processors spray the meat with disenfectant solution and irradiate it. Then they shrink wrap it and send it to your local supermarket.

The meat is cheap, but the social costs are not included in the price. Each head of cattle requires about 284 gallons of oil in its lifetime. As Michael Pollan says, “We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine.” Runoff from the petroleum based fertilizer has traveled down the Mississippi and created a 12,000-square-mile “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Extensive use of antibiotics has led to resistant strains of bacteria. And scientists believe that hormone use has contributed to dropping human sperm counts and sexual abnormalities in fish. One cattleman interviewed by Pollan said: “I’d love to give up hormones. If the consumer said, ‘We don’t want hormones,’ we’d stop in a second. The cattle could get along better without them. But the market signal’s not there, and as long as my competitor’s doing it, I’ve got to do it, too.” But it is difficult to imagine how this signal would be generated, because the system is designed to keep the origins of beef a mystery to the consumer. So the cattleman continues to feel coerced into using hormones. (Being Consumed, 29-31)

Here is the link to the original article, “Power Steer” in the New York Times Magazine, 2002.

I’m not sure what to make of this. Cavanaugh suggests buying beef from local farms where you know the farmers allow for pasture-grazing, or local stores where you know the owner and can get an idea of his sources for products. Not only would this make you feel better about the food you’re buying and consuming, but it would also help the local economy.  At the very least, this is the kind of suggestion that helps Christians think better about their practices, while at the same time advocating a deeper awareness of what we’re participating in regarding the everyday practices we take for granted, like grocery-shopping.