By Tito Sasaki
On October 1, many Federal workers had to go home early because of government shutdown. Who should stay and who should be sent home depended on whether the work they were performing was essential or non-essential. As a consequence, EPA had to furlough 94% of its employees because they were found to be non-essential.
During World War II, farmers were exempt from the draft because they were performing essential work. Many others who weren’t drafted – including Rosie the Riveter – were also doing essential work like making munitions and building ships and aircraft. In 1943, 50% of the U.S. workforce was engaged in goods-producing and farming sectors. Now the figure is under 15%. And those 94% of the EPA employees are back on payroll. So, our nation today seems to be run by non-essential people engaged in non-essential pursuits.
As the society becomes affluent, the basic needs for people’s survival are met first, and demands shift away from essential matters. The more affluent, peaceful, and complacent we grow, the more trivial our concerns become.
Let’s take an example of farming. The essential requirements are that we produce nutritious, safe, and affordable produce in adequate quantity at the right time. Consumers today take all these traits for granted, and their purchase decisions are often made on factors such as look, flavor, and fad, or if the labeling includes the word “organic” or “natural.”
Sonoma County used to produce apples, pears, prunes, and other fruits besides milk, eggs, poultry, sheep, beef, and hay. Today, the leading crop is wine grapes. Is this another sign of a shift from essential to non-essential? Well, during Prohibition, sacramental wine was exempt; so, wine must be essential at least for the faithful.
The Wine Spectator magazine, for its October issue, interviewed the wine buyer of Whole Foods Market. The buyer’s advice to the wine industry was to put on the label all information the shoppers wanted to know: where the grapes were grown, if the viticulture was biodynamic or organic and sustainable, when harvested, when bottled, if renewable energy and recycled water were used, if workers were treated fairly, etc. These tidbits of information are far more than what is required on a chalice of sacramental wine, but they are the Holy Grail of Whole Foods’ shelf space.
The wine buyer has a good point, though. Farming organic, let alone biodynamic, or complying with numerous regulations adds substantially to our production cost. If your produce calls for a premium price as a result, consumers should be told why. The industry has long been touting “cage-free” or “dolphin-safe” on the packaging as a marketing aid. We will have to find ways to turn every regulatory burden to a new sales pitch.
If we look at the whole world, however, we still find the basic problem of malnutrition. Eradicating hunger is on many organizations’ agenda. But the recently formed Berkeley Food Institute of the UC Berkeley goes far beyond it. They try to change the “highly industrialized and globalized” food and agriculture systems of the world today to something “ecologically and culturally diverse and socially just.” They reject capitalism, market economy, state programs, and even corporate donations for their funding.
I wish them well because if this ambitious attempt falters, it would crown itself over all other non-essential intellectual pursuits.