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Food Industry Problems Aren’t Special

Many factory farms are dirty and problematic, but so are the workplaces for many (illegally underpaid) people sewing garments in Los Angeles.

Factory farms make less healthy meat, but the way a lot of meat is processed also makes it less healthy. And vegetable oil may be doing more harm to people’s health than meat. Adding artificial colorings and sweeteners to food does harm too, or piling in extra sugar. The world is full of problems.

You may disagree with me about some of these specific problems. My general point stands even if, actually, vegetable oil is fine. If you actually think the world is not full of huge problems, then we have a more relevant disagreement. In that case, you may wish to read some of my other writing about problems in the world or debate me.

The food industry, to some extent, is arrogantly trying to play God. They want to break food down into components (like salt, fat, sugar, protein, color and nutrients) and then recombine the components to build up ideal, cheap foods however they want. But they don’t know what they’re doing. They will remove a bunch of vitamins, then add back in a few that they know are important, while failing to add others back in. They have repeatedly hurt people by doing stuff like this. It’s especially dangerous when they think they know all the components needed to make baby formula, but they don’t – e.g. they will just get fat from soy and think they replaced fat with fat so it’s fine. But soy has clear differences from natural breast milk, such as a different fatty acid profile. They also have known for decades that the ratio of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids you consume is important, but then they put soy oil in many things and give people unhealthy ratios with too much omega 6. Then they also put out public health advice saying to eat more omega 3’s but not to eat fewer omega 6’s, even though they know it’s the ratio that matters and they know tons of people get way too much omega 6 (including infants).

Mixing huge batches of lettuce or ground beef (so if any of it has E. Coli, the whole batch is contaminated) is similar to how Amazon commingles inventory from different sellers (including themselves), doesn’t track what came from who, and thereby encourages fraud because when fraud happens they have no idea which seller sent in the fraudulent item. That doesn’t stop Amazon from blaming and punishing whichever seller was getting paid for the particular sale when the fraud was noticed, even though he’s probably innocent. Due to policies like these, Amazon has a large amount of fraud on its platforms. Not all industries, in all areas, have these problems. E.g. I have heard of milk samples being tested from dairy farms, before mixing the milk together from many farms, so that responsibility for problems can be placed on the correct people. Similarly, if they wanted to, Amazon could keep track of which products are sent in from which sellers in order to figure out which sellers send in fraudulent items.

Activists who care to consider the big picture should wonder why there are problems in many industries, and wonder what can be done about them.

For example, enforcing fraud laws better would affect basically all industries at once, so that is a candidate idea that could have much higher leverage.

Getting people to stop picking fights without 80% majorities could affect fighting, activism, tribalism and other problems across all topics, so it potentially has very high leverage.

Limiting the government’s powers to favor companies would apply to all industries.

Basic economics education could help people make better decisions about any industry and better judge what sort of policies are reasonable for any industry.

Dozens more high-leverage ideas could be brainstormed. The main obstacle to finding them is that people generally aren’t actually trying. Activists tend to be motivated by some concrete issue in one area (like helping animals or the environment, or preventing cancer, or helping kids or the elderly or battered women), not by abstract issues like higher leverage or fight-avoiding reforms. If a proposal is low-leverage and involves fighting with a lot of people (or powerful people) who oppose it, then in general it’s a really bad idea. Women’s shelters or soup kitchens are low leverage but largely unopposed, so that’s a lot better than a low leverage cause which many people think is bad. But it’s high leverage causes that have the potential to dramatically improve the world. Many low-leverage, unopposed causes can add up and make a big difference too. High leverage but opposed causes can easily be worse than low leverage unopposed causes. If you’re going to oppose people you really ought to aim for high leverage to try to make it worth it. Sometimes there’s an approach to a controversial cause that dramatically reduces opposition, and people should be more interested in seeking those out.

Elliot Temple on January 1, 2023


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