Why not use barcodes to shift preferences away from unhealthy, processed foods toward whole food choices? We eat what is cheap. Barcodes could change this, just as we tax alcohol and cigarettes. Barcodes could be used to tax unhealthy food choices with revenues recycled to local farmers growing foods in a sustainable manner.
With modern technology and the current composition of agriculture—still heavily weighted toward small family farms that earn only modest agricultural receipts—we do have in place the tools and the agricultural profile to implement, without major dislocation, many of these ideas.
Barcodes, whose initial digits already code the country of origin, could be made to code the environmental and health “footprint” of a product. The glycemic index as well as the amount of sugar, transfats, chemical ingredients, and GMOs could be coded, with products taxed accordingly. We eat what is cheap. Taxing to make products that foster diabetes, metabolic stress, and chronic disease less attractive would discourage demand. It would also shift more and more purchasing power toward healthier whole-food choices, particularly if ways could be found to reduce the cost of organic, whole-foods. One way that this could be achieved is to direct the tax revenue from barcode-levied unhealthy processed foods, recycling these funds to subsidize organic, sustainable farming.
Agricultural Profile…The Reason Barcodes Could Work. When we think of U.S. agriculture, we may think of the vast acreage tied up in modern agri-business and commercial farming efforts. While it is true that much of our food today is produced on these mega-farms, small family farms are still the bedrock of our agricultural system. According to the latest Census of Agriculture (2007, released 4 Feb, 2009), 90% of all farms are still owned by individual farmers. In addition, farm receipts for the majority of farms total less than $10,000 annually.1 This profile suggests that most U.S. farms are small, rather flexible production units. With the backing of federal subsidies and shifts in consumer demand, this broad network of small, individual farmers might adjust rather quickly and well to a growing demand for organic, sustainable, locally-grown foods.
Measuring GDP to value “product” in the home. Support for sustainable organic foods and humane animal husbandry does not reach far enough. We need also to teach cooking skills and give value to home cooking. The government’s GDP may measure earned, reported income and product, but it imputes nothing for quality of life or the value added to goods that are associated with man-hours contributed at home. The GDP adds no value for foods grown in family gardens or prepared in home kitchens [nor the hours that parents spend on providing childcare, for that matter2 ]. Growing food, buying from local organic farmers, and taking time to cook meals at home mean that we gain the added value of knowing where our food comes from. And, the kitchen gives us a creative outlet right in our own homes (see The Gift of the Kitchen, January, 2010). We need government statistics to measure quality of life behaviors that encourage connection to food, family and better health.
“Fairness.” We like to pride ourselves on our free market economy, but in reality we live in an agricultural system that is neither “free” nor a real market.3 The government not only uses tax revenues from individuals to pay farmers not to produce, but also offers subsides to (GMO) grain and soybean farmers to compensate them for depressed market prices . It seems to me that the government is really subsidizing, through our commercial food system, our own medical system. Aren’t our tax dollars supporting a “double-dip” structure that benefits medical care—through subsides that allow for cheap food that fosters chronic disease AND through our subsidized national health care system? Is it any wonder that medical care is the prime growth sector in today’s otherwise lackluster economy?
Projected upon this canvas, the thought of using barcode-taxing to shift incentives away from fractured, commercial foods toward whole foods grown sustainably is hardly a wild proposal. Given the lobby-generated bias in Washington that creates an “upside-down” Food Pyramid, as well as subsides for GMO crops and school lunch programs saturated with processed foods, attempts to shift demand and production toward healthier choices seem both reasonable and justified. Barcodes can be used to educate consumers, shifting demand toward healthier food choices. And, our vast network of small family farmers, far from intractable, seems more than able—if led by the nurturing hand of government— to shift more and more of our natural and human resources to the production of “real” food.
Copyright 2011 Pathways4Health.org