Economics of Fermentation

By Charles Eisenstein. Originally appeared in Wise Traditions Magazine.

My brother John and I share a hobby of brewing lacto-fermented sodas – root beers and ginger ales – which we share among family and friends and occasionally sell at health food conventions. Often we are asked, “Where can I buy this?” Our answer is “Nowhere.” Unless you are lucky enough to run into us at the Weston A. Price Conference, chances are you will never see lacto-fermented soda for sale anywhere.

Our personal reasons for not “expanding our operation” are deeply relevant to the conflict between craft and commerce in food production. Usually I make soda in 5-gallon batches. The process is fairly time-consuming, but it fits in well with other chores and there is no obligation to brew a certain amount at a certain time. Since I enjoy brewing several times a week, I produce a surplus – far more than our own family can drink. To expand to a commercial level, though, would mean changes in the way I brew, because as it stands I can only net about $20 per hour of labor. To be commercially viable, I would need to exploit efficiencies of scale by buying better equipment: a bottle-washing machine, bottler, larger fermentation vessels, etc. Then it is no longer a kitchen hobby; it is a business that must consider shipping, legal licensing, labeling laws, sanitation regulations, accounting, etc.

The Compromises of Commerce

So far so good. Some people are naturally inclined towards business. There are more and more small foodcrafting businesses these days, and I am happy to pay a premium for their products. But it is more than a matter of hobby vs. business – there are certain compromises one must make to bring production past a certain critical volume. The critical volume for fermented foods is especially low, because the product is alive and working. Lactofermented soda keeps fermenting in the bottle, for instance, leading to foaming and spraying when you open it, or even dangerous exploding bottles, if you leave them out long enough. There is a good reason that mass-marketed soft drinks are dead. In fact it is a necessity in the context of national brands, centralized production, and mass distribution. To change the way food is produced and processed inescapably demands changes in the way it is distributed and sold.

The compromises one would have to make to sell fermented soda on an economically viable scale are constant refrigeration and scary warning labels, or pasteurization, or plastic bottles. None are acceptable to us, for ecological and health reasons.

Similar compromises apply to most of the fermented foods that have survived the last century of food industrialization. Pickles and relish are no longer fermented at all, but preserved in vinegar and sterilized with heat in the canning process. Wine is treated with sodium metabisulfite before fermentation to destroy wild bacteria and yeasts that make the results less predictable. Beer is usually pasteurized or microfiltered to kill or remove living yeast. Yogurt survives, but it just isn’t as good after the first day; the same is true of bread. Sauerkraut is usually pasteurized. To be sure there are niche brands, available in health-food stores, which are still living foods, but then freezing or refrigeration is necessary. This is rather ironic, since a major motivation for fermenting foods in the first place was to preserve them, in the days before refrigeration.

To make our soda with pleasure and without compromise limits us to a production level of ten to twenty gallons a week. This is sufficient to supply perhaps five or ten households. From this realization, a new (or rather very old) economic model of food production suggests itself.

When Money Reigns Supreme

Anyone who has tried to incorporate all the principles of Nourishing Traditions into their diet will find that it is almost a full-time job. If you want to grind your own flour, bake your own bread, make your own yogurt, your own soaked-and-slow-dried nuts, your own relishes and chutneys, your own bone stock, your own sprouts, your own kombucha and ginger beer… this is more than the typical beleaguered house husband can handle. One wonders how they did it in the old days. The answer is, They didn’t! For one thing, before the age of the suburbs and the automobile, extended families lived together in the same house, and as often as not, next door from cousins and uncles. Four people cooking for 16 people is a lot easier than one person cooking for four. Moreover, communities were small and close-knit, and there was probably some degree of specialization and sharing among households.

I don’t want to make ginger beer for hundreds of people, most of them strangers, but I would be delighted to make it for a handful of other families whom I know well. Maybe one of them would make fresh-ground slow-rise sourdough bread for me (I never could get that to work). Maybe another would supply me with chutney and fish sauce. Maybe another makes soy sauce. Another brews beer; another wine from their own grapes. Maybe another neighbor has a 30-gallon cauldron for making beef stock; another, a 30-gallon pickling crock. For most traditional foods, the optimum level of production is more than for the nuclear family, but less than what is considered economically viable in today’s money economy.

Money can facilitate exchange among friends and neighbors, but in essence money is an anonymous form of energy – almost by its definition as a universal medium of exchange. Among friends and neighbors, the usual laws of market economics do not apply. You don’t seek to maximize profit. You don’t raise your prices to the maximum just because you can. You are not doing it for the money; you are doing it for your family and for the neighbors. In an economy of reciprocation and social exchange; that is, in an economy that is not primarily a money economy, “economic efficiency” takes on a different meaning.

The more anonymous the customer, the more money stands as the sole motivating force. In today’s multi-level, automated, and standardized food production & distribution system, the consumer is almost totally anonymous to the farmer, the commodity buyer, the processing factory, and even the grocer. There is no reason to care about the wholesomeness of the product, except to the extent necessary to conform to whatever regulations are enforced, and whatever the public might find out about. No reason? Oh pardon me, I forgot about altruism. Yes of course, a company might make products better than they need to be out of a abstract altruism, but when the (very real) pressures of market competition come to bear, such altruism quickly degenerates into sloganeering and PR. Some version of “caring about the health of the consumer” surely appears in the mission statements of all the major food corporations, including the most egregious violators of the public trust. In other words, it is hard to genuinely care about someone you don’t even know. Compassion in the abstract is almost always a self-deception. Much more reliable is the goodwill and mutual sense of responsibility that exists among neighbors who are bound together into a community, their good intentions enforced by social pressure and the intimacy of long association.

In many areas of life, social mechanisms of enforcing responsible behavior have atrophied as communities have disintegrated. These have been replaced by legal mechanisms. The old mechanisms of gossip, ostracism, reputation, etc. have lost their power. No matter how much your neighbors dislike you, your money is still good at Wal-Mart. In today’s anonymous society, we are little dependent on our communities, which have become mere collections of buildings. More and more, we are connected to our neighbors by proximity only. The increasing legalism and litigiousness of America is a symptom of unraveling communities, weakening connections. On a most basic level, we no longer make food for each other. All phases of food production, from the farm to the kitchen, are increasingly the province of strangers who are paid to do it.

You cannot pay someone to care. You can pay someone to act as if they care; you can pay them to follow meticulous guidelines; but you can’t make them really care.

Wholesomeness of food is more than a matter of which methods and processes are used to bring it from soil to table. When caring is codified, the code loses much of its meaning, especially under the influence of powerful corporations. The letter persists while the spirit departs. Many of the best, most conscientious farmers I know eschew the organic certification, because they know that food produced according to the letter of the organic code need not be consonant with the spirit that gave birth to organic farming in the first place.

Toward a More Personal Food Economy

To genuinely return to our “wise traditions” in food, farming, and the healing arts, I believe we must begin to dissociate ourselves from the money economy and return to older models of reciprocity. As with anything, such an effort must start with you, personally, as an individual. For starters, price must not be your primary consideration in making a purchase. The consumer’s desire to find the cheapest price is a crucial link in the whole crazy chain. The supermarkets compete on price, their suppliers compete on price; the food processors are compelled to choose lower costs over healthier processes; the farmers are enslaved to commodity markets that compel them to cut raise productivity (measured in dollars) to the maximum just to survive. Commodity markets do not care about the farmer’s well-being. They operate according to price, and price alone. If that price means 16-hour days and bare survival for the farmer, so be it. If it means 16-hour days and bankruptcy for the farmer, so be it. The market, in which sentimentality is an obstacle to good business, does not care.

Compassion usually only extends as far as the eye can see. We live, most of us, oblivious to such things as world hunger, deforestation, and toxic waste – oblivious, that is, until it comes a’knocking. Our response to a starving person at the door is different from our response to a starving person in Africa, who we know exists, in theory, but who isn’t in our faces. How could we expect consumers, then, to really care about farmers, who are separated by layer after layer of distribution, processing, and packaging? And how could we expect farmers to really care about the wholesomeness and goodness of their food, when the beneficiaries are similarly remote, and when the tangible rewards hinge not on goodness but on cost efficiency?

Social connections, and human contact, are the ally of good intentions. It is easy to participate in an exploitative food system when you cannot see the victims. But it goes against human nature, and rational self-interest, to victimize someone with whom you have a continuing relationship of mutual dependency. In the arena of food, we put it this way: “Social connections and human contact are the ally of good food.”

Vast economies of scale are incompatible with personal relationships. What personal relationships can there be when you have 10,000 customers and 200 suppliers (or 10 suppliers employing 200 laborers)? At vast economies of scale, of necessity, standardized specifications replace relationships of trust.

Government regulations governing food quality, toxic ingredients, etc. can only go so far. When food is a primarily a commodity, powerful forces will always be at work to deceive the public for the sake of profit. Usually this deception won’t be intentional; it will be the sum total of the economic decisions, wishful thinking, unquestioned habits, and skewed scientific research priorities of food companies, farmers, consumers, and scientists. It is tempting to look for enemies, but the conspiracy we face is one without conspirators. The problem goes deeper than that, to the way we treat food. Certainly new regulations can be beneficial, but it is an uphill battle when food is a commodity.

An alternative path exists: food should not be primarily a commodity. Food is a gift of God’s Good Earth, for which all religious traditions teach gratitude. To subject it to the economic regime of the lowest bidder is to desecrate the gift and insult the Giver. For most of human history, the sharing of food was a significant social act, cementing ties between friends and kin, showing welcome to strangers. Today it has become an anonymous act of commerce.

Other people in other times would no doubt have thought it exceedingly strange, if not downright obscene, for total strangers to grow, process, and even cook nearly all one’s food.

The Proper Role of Money

That is not to say that food should never be bought. Money has its rightful role, even among friends, as an aid to fairness and a means of support. What I am saying, rather, is that the sharing of food should be part of a personal relationship. Money may be involved, but the profit motive should be secondary. In my economic relationships with the local farmers I know, I am happy to pay them a fair price, in hopes that they will be prosperous. My sentiment is partly selfish, because I know that if they are prosperous, they will continue to provide me with good food. But also I simply don’t feel good about eating food that came through the devaluing of another human being’s labor, especially when I know that human being personally. When a personal relationship exists between food supplier and food consumer, then bargaining becomes a process of each party coming to understand the other’s circumstances to find a mutually fair price, rather than a heartless and shameless exercise of getting the best possible price, which in economics is called “maximizing utility” and in commonsense language is called greed.

Let me also add that the difference between food produced by someone you know and shared through means that respects both producer and consumer, and food grown, processed, and sold by strangers working for faceless corporations, is a difference you can taste. The body responds differently. Food given in fair and respectful exchange by someone you know and trust is more nourishing. I doubt anyone will ever discover a shred of scientific proof for this, but I invite you to verify it for yourself.

In working with my bacterial soda culture, I sometimes get the feeling that the bacteria itself doesn’t want to be sold. Similarly, I feel that sauerkraut wants to live in a barrel in the basement. Before you dismiss this as a flight of fancy, consider the uncanny resistance of truly wholesome food to mass production and mass distribution. Most fresh foods, for example, have a limited shelf life, which can only be extended by killing the food through processing, or putting it in suspended animation by refrigeration or freezing. The former response diminishes its healthfulness; the latter has environmental costs. (Also I never have believed the freezing fully preserves the healthfulness of food. It tastes less vibrant, even if all the enzymes are supposedly intact.) Other preservation methods, namely dehydration and fermentation, might arguably work for mass production and distribution, but even here there are problems with storage and shelf life (food companies’ use of preservatives and pasteurization is not entirely gratuitous). Besides, such foods cannot account for the bulk of one’s year-round diet.

In production as well, true organic farming that builds the soil, doesn’t depend on large external inputs, doesn’t pollute the environment, and doesn’t exploit labor is again incompatible with large-scale production of crops or livestock. The compromises farmers make to achieve the economies of scale necessary for survival in the commodity economy are, again, not entirely gratuitous. No one builds a 5000-hog concrete hog barn out of aesthetic delight, devotion to animal husbandry, or desire to nourish one’s neighbors with good food. The connection between fresh, wholesome food and localism is not an incidental one.

When people ask if they can buy our soda in the future, we usually say, “No, but we’ll teach you how to make it.” We envision a society where every household has a speciality, be it soda or sauerkraut, soap or stock, bread or soy sauce, that they make in quantities sufficient for five or ten households – precisely the quantity that maximizes efficiency without compromising quality. (It is not much more work to make ten gallons of soda than it is to make one, but to make fifty gallons is an enterprise of an entirely different order.) We envision a society also where farmers are personally acquainted with the people who eat their produce, or perhaps, for certain products, linked through one degree of separation. This is workable, because almost as if by design, the ideal size for a sustainably operated mixed family farm is sufficient to meet the food needs of 20 or 30 families. Of course, farms might specialize to some degree, so each family might patronize three or four farms; even so, this calculates out to a manageable number of people per farm, few enough that the farmer can know each personally. Personally I believe that true sustainability requires even smaller farms, and more farmers. Maybe almost everyone not living in a city should be a part-time farmer, at least to the extent of tending a vegetable garden or keeping a few chickens.

In such a society, money alone would not guarantee good food. Moving into a new community, you would need to get to know people, build connections, find your niche. Moving to a new community would be a big deal, as indeed it was in yesterday’s small towns and neighborhoods, more demanding than simply finding where the supermarkets and superstores are located. There would be more sharing in life. We would be more dependent on our neighbors, less dependent on strangers living thousands of miles away, and less dependent on corporations governed by the profit motive. Food would recapture its ancient role of social bonding. This would, I believe, be a much happier society than our current one, with its alienation, loneliness, and rootlessness.

If this seems a fantasy, or the required transformation too daunting, remember that change only need happen one choice at a time. In fact, it happens no other way. If you are a commodity farmer, reconnection with the consumer can be gradual, guided one decision at a time by an intention or a vision. One farm family that I know and admire well provides a good example of this. Even as they continue to sell bulk milk to Organic Valley, they also sell raw dairy products from the farm and through a friend’s CSA. So far the bulk sales are what pay the bills, but the direct-to-consumer sales are growing, and promise one day to enable them to keep fewer cows, work not so hard, be prosperous, and have the pleasure of providing good food to people they know as real human beings. What, after all, is the purpose of life if not to do good work and do it well? To maximize one’s financial benefits is a dispiriting way of life.

Authentic Change is More than a Brand Switch

For the consumer, it is essential to realize that positive dietary change involves more than choosing product A over product B from the supermarket shelves, or supplement pill A over supplement pill B. If health may be defined as wholeness, then it is to be expected that a move toward healthier food will involve a move towards wholeness in other areas of life as well. Healthy eating is not so simple as a brand switch, because mass distribution and mass marketing generally rests on the same foundation of ill health, where money has exceeded its proper facilitative role to become an end in itself, supplanting other forms of human relationship. The pathological state of food economics inevitably expresses itself in the food. Checking ingredient lists in packaged foods is important, but it only goes so far. Seek instead to buy food from real people that you feel good about.

And yes, be prepared to pay a little more. Today’s ridiculously low food prices are an insult to the farmer and an insult to the food. Most of our food dollar today goes for the processing, packaging, shipping, advertising, etc., not for the raw ingredients. So even if you pay a premium for fresh foods direct from the farmer, the eventual effect will be to reduce your consumption of processed foods and restaurant food, and therefore your monetary expenditures. Don’t compare farm-bought free range eggs with store-bought eggs and conclude you can’t afford to pay triple the price. You must compare the entire lifestyle that goes along with it.

In an age where nearly every social function has entered the realm of money, it is no wonder that we are chronically fixated on getting the best price. Not too long ago, such things as food, shelter, and clothing were produced by one’s own family, and rarely bought and sold. In many places it was still true in the 20th century. Writing about the Ladakh of India, Helena Norbert-Hodge observes that before the road was built connecting them to the outside, money was used but rarely, for such things as jewelry. The necessities of life were shared or exchanged through other social mechanisms. Money was not important, because it bought nothing important. Today the opposite is true: everything costs money. Even such intimate functions as housecleaning, cooking, and child care are given over to paid outsiders. In today’s society, unlike ever before, without money one has nothing. One is completely dependent on money to live. Or so it appears. No wonder, then, the omnipresent dread of my students at Penn State that they will be unable to find a job and “make a living.” When I poll them about their main motivation to attend college – to get a good-paying job, or to learn things – about 90% acknowledge the former. Their major life decisions are determined by money. Their thralldom to it is nearly complete. And they are not to be blamed for this, in a world where money has usurped most other modes of economic relationship.

People complain they are unable to afford real food. Why is “fake food” so cheap? Because it has become subject to the economic efficiencies that govern any other commodity. But this is precisely the same reason – that it (and all other necessities) is a commodity – that it has become something we can afford or not afford. There is therefore a deep connection between the insecurity that compels people to choose the lowest price, and the fact that bad food is cheap. The system is self-reinforcing, a vicious circle. When life’s necessities become monetized, money becomes a life necessity.

If I make soda for you, usually it is because you are my friend, relative, neighbor, or guest. I might let you pay for it, especially if you are a friend, but just as likely it will be a gift. My soda contains something of my essence; it is too good, and too personal, to be sold for the sake of profit alone. To trade something personal for something anonymous is a disrespect to the giver, just as the perversion of the gift of food into just another commodity, is to disrespect the good earth from whence it comes. It is thus an insult to your own labor to sell its fruits for mere money alone. If you do that, the spirit will be dissatisfied. The beautiful soda is gone, and all I have is money for it? How common! That is why, along with the money, should come the joy of providing something good to others. For me, this only works when I can see and know these others.

Why even make soda in the first place? Why be a farmer? If it’s for the money, there are better professions. In such things, the proper role of money is to enable one to do Good Work.

I must emphasize again that I don’t advocate abandoning money altogether, just keeping it in its proper place. Specialization is fine when it comes to the technical products of industrialized society, but in the intimate realms of life, specialization has run amok and stolen something of our humanity. Food is one such realm. Here we need less specialization and more sharing, more producers and fewer middlemen. An anonymous, commodity-based food system is inconsistent with fresh, living, wholesome food. Of necessity it impoverishes the farmer, sickens the consumer, and ruins the land. As a consumer, to begin withdrawing from this system will mean paying more, initially, for certain foodstuffs, and spending more time in the kitchen. The ultimate result, though, will be to enrich you. By withdrawing, partially, from the money economy in this one area of life; that is, by basing economic decisions on something other than the best price, you will quite naturally become richer in those things that money cannot buy. And, almost as if by magic, you will become materially more wealthy too – not because of your bank balance, but because you will feel more secure in the material world.

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9 thoughts on “Economics of Fermentation

  1. Thank you for that, well put. I make soap and love making it simple with no colours or fragnences, because I care that some people are sensitive to either or both, and because I think soap’s action is to clean.
    I like particularly what you said “When I poll them about their main motivation to attend college – to get a good-paying job, or to learn things” is exactly what I want -to learn things and then share with my family, friends and neighbours. My friends teach me but I don’t mind paying for that too.

  2. This was entirely not what I thought it would be and everything I have been thinking as of late. I am beginning my very first garden and my first forays into fermented foods as well. I never thought I would find an article that sums up how I have been feeling lately and I know a great many others in my age range (20-30) that feel the same way. I wonder if this is just the life cycle of the current social norm running its course and people beginning to see the results that it has given the previous generation. Thank you for sharing, I know I’ve made my choice to start working towards the goal you mentioned, hopefully there are others that feel the same way.

    Cheers!~

  3. I think that you should be able to buy lactic based fermentation sodas in Three Stone Hearth kitchen, at least in the past they had them (based on honey)

    http://www.threestonehearth.com/

    I am quite pretty sure that there was at least one type of lactic ferment based drink available in Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, Mission back in 2010

    http://www.yelp.com/biz/rainbow-grocery-san-francisco

    Otherwise I hope that there will be more drinks based on lactic fermentation available but it is likely to take time.

    Best of luck with your brewing.

    Sincerely from Seoul,

    Frantisek

  4. From someone who is an economist and loves real food, I think that you’ve taken a narrow minded stance on this topic. You mentioned several times that large commercial outfits are greedy, but also that they charge the lowest prices, and that you are willing to pay a much higher price that you consider to be fair for premium products. This doesn’t make much sense to me. In economics this problem is related to product differentiation and symmetrical information- one of the central assumptions of a functioning market. I think that a lack of information is a huge problem in our food markets and I feel bad to get tooting on the same old horn, but the government is owed a lot of blame.

    Imagine a world where there were absolutely no food regulations (I know you’re squirming) but a requirement that producers must be transparent about their processes, ingredients, etc. Perhaps this could be regulated by a simple licensing authority that removes producer licenses when wrongdoing is evident. Furthermore producers cannot lie about their products. We would be able to make incredibly better decisions with all of the excess information we would receive.

    Meat producers could state that their meat isn’t cloned, fed antibiotics, or chicken poo – like their competitors. Eggs could be described as pasture raised, milk could be raw. Imagine if Joel Salatin could sell his chicken (that was slaughtered outside) in a grocery store and write that it has almost no bacteria in comparison to the salmonella riddled crap a la USDA.

    We suffer so greatly for the favors that the FDA/USDA tries to do for us. The establishment of basic regulations is what allows a company to follow to requirements for “cage free” chicken that is still a thousand light years away from pastured chicken.

    And we still havent covered the libel laws that make it impossible for even Oprah to say that she doesn’t want to eat hamburgers- when people are DYING from ecoli.

    Rationally I would argue with you that artisan food producers are “greedier” than large commercial ones because they charge much higher prices. But this problem really has absolutely nothing to do with greed. Getting on a soapbox and lamenting the awful state of our food system, and trying to fix it by removing the most inherent human condition is about as successful as soviet russia. We need to accept ourselves for who we are, acting with self interest is okay- you and I are doing it all the time. We don’t want to eat garbage food- we just are lucky enought that when the wool is pulled over our eyes our faces itch. We know we have to pay more to get the good stuff, or do it ourselves. What about the poor people who trust the government to help them out? If they were allowed to freedom to acquire knowledge we wouldn’t be here. It’s an extension of knowing who your farmer is, and letting him brag to you about what he does. This isn’t a completely broken system that needs something as extreme as complete personality makeovers for the entire population, people on the whole aren’t inherently evil because of money. I encourage you to thoroughly examine the incentives people have, and view this problem from other angles.

  5. incredible aricle! as a homesteader and a part time farm hand and greenhouse manager, i do it for the love not the money. all our eggs and jams are gifted or traded.

    Just started to do the farmers market in the town where the farm i work for is located. we do other markets in nearby cities and do very well there charging market prices, but in town we realize that most people living in rural areas who are concerned about the food they eat probably grow their own. or come the market looking for fresh at best price. rural communities are generally less wealthy than suburban conterparts. bc our farm is certified organic we “have” to charge more than the next farm stand up. “market prices”- not the cost of labor and production etc. i see the fallicy in this very alienating for our farm within the community. we try to offer deals and sell in bulk, promote preserving extras, share recipes. at the end of the night, it’s not how much money we made, but how much good food we sent home with neighbors in our community. whatever doesn’t sell at our market gets composted anyhow as the farm operates. my husband and i ensure most is distributed to our friends and family in need, a few other farms with livestock that will eat watse veggies etc… what goes around comes around…
    as far as marketing lactofermented sodas, a friend of mine who makes killer kraut (inspired by your book to get into the biz) looked into getting his ginger beers on the market, but apparently the soda and alcohol industries see a small producer a threat and have created so much erronious red tape and fees that he’d have to be very wealthy just to get it “legally” on the market.

  6. Pingback: Living Foods for Living People « ALTmentalities

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