Business Has No Business In Wild Food

A Los Angeles business man named Howard Manning e-mailed me today about a venture he’s been trying to start since 2001: He wants to take nuts and berries from public, urban trees and employ homeless people at minimum wage to harvest and process them into specialty food items, such as acorn-flour tortilla chips, for sale to local eateries. He promotes this concept under the guise of “cleaning up the mess” of edibles fallen on the streets and “creating jobs for the long-term unemployed,” according to California’s Press Enterprise newspaper.

Mr. Manning may have good intentions, but his plan amounts to hijacking public land and exploiting what little nature we have left for profit, to say nothing of the homeless.* Fortunately, no one has seriously considered his proposal. Wild food is the last bastion of freedom and security for living beings on this planet. It belongs to Earth alone and it must remain a non-monetarized resource for both human and nonhuman animals. It is our link to a sane past, our hope for survival and our lifeline to a free and wild present.

Mr. Manning, if you really want to help the homeless, petition your City Council to plant more trees so that all of us have more free food to eat. Educate folks on sustainable harvesting and empower them to have a direct connection to both dinner and nature, unmitigated by money. Otherwise, this is our future:


Image by Jon Foreman

* (Would he pay himself $8 an hour too, and call it fair compensation?)

3 thoughts on “Business Has No Business In Wild Food

  1. JP, thanks for such a wonderfully thoughtful reply. You make insightful points from a pragmatic perspective. Of course, I do have a reply. :-)

    *To clarify, it wasn’t a failed business yet. It’s a business idea that hasn’t gotten off the ground.
    *Regarding your point that no one seems to be taking advantage of the resource now:
    – Animals eat the nuts and berries too. Our society includes nonhumans.
    – More people would want to eat them if they learned that they could (ignorance is a key reason people don’t tend to forage in urban environments), especially if the traditional food sources became unavailable, which they could due to economic problems or disasters
    – The idea of privatizing what belongs to the public then essentially steals food from the future hungry.
    – There is a scarcity of urban food trees, not an abundance, in the context of how many people we have living in the same area who could want to eat from them. (Myself, I found that I made a major impact on the feral food supply just eating around Portland for a week).
    – One of the reasons we’ve got such an ecological disaster now is that capitalism has seen any resource that isn’t being turned into profit as unused or vacant. There’s inherent value in allowing nature to exist for its own sake, without using up every bit of it.

    *The argument that it’s OK to pay desperate people low wages is pretty icky because it exploits vulnerability. I see why you’re saying it’s an improvement over making nothing, but that’s the same argument corporations use to justify sweatshop labor. If we’re going to do the money thing, we ought to pay people wages that are fair across the board, regardless of how crappy their lives are to begin with. Imagine if employers always paid people based on their level of desperation! Eeek.

    • hmmm, ok….

      “There is a scarcity of urban food trees, not an abundance, in the context of how many people we have living in the same area who could want to eat from them.”
      – Isn’t this presupposing that which you are trying to prove? Sure lots of people COULD want to eat this stuff, but do they? And if the food is just eventually rotting, doesn’t that strongly suggest that not many people really want to eat the food as it is?

      You also make a few arguments based on the future: “if the traditional food sources became unavailable, which they could due to economic problems or disasters” and “The idea of privatizing what belongs to the public then essentially steals food from the future hungry.”
      – But this food is perishable. It’s not as if Manning is gathering up a long-lasting resource that some one otherwise would’ve been able to eat years down the line. If he doesn’t, it may just go to waste. Since Manning is not seeking any exclusive use, in the future any one can still begin to eat the food for free.

      “One of the reasons we’ve got such an ecological disaster now is that capitalism has seen any resource that isn’t being turned into profit as unused or vacant. There’s inherent value in allowing nature to exist for its own sake, without using up every bit of it.”
      – I think this is an unfair generalization. This sort of business is distinguishable from other types of enterprise that cause genuine ecological damage. This isn’t causing a long term, irreparable harm the way say, carbon emissions are. Also, it’s not destroying resources, since the nuts/berries are likely to rot on their own anyway. It’s unlike destruction of forest, which take generations to grow. Since these are public city trees, these nuts/berries he isn’t disrupting a natural process of replenishing forestry.

      Minimum wage – I buy that there are circumstances when the demand for labor is fairly inelastic, and the same number of people will be hired even with a bump in the minimum wage. But before the fact, it’s quite difficult to know when that is the case. Certainly, I think people at the bottom rungs of the labor market should make more than minimum wage, but I’d hate to see any one fail to find a job at all as a result. You can set minimums, but you can’t force any one to hire at that rate. It may be distasteful, but if the alternative is no job at all, that’s still the superior outcome. Though, perhaps it’s better to have fewer people working at a living wage, than more people working at merely the legal minimum? Possible, but I don’t see why we would prefer the former to the latter.

      Anyhow, I’m more concerned about the abject failure at Copenhagen….

  2. A few thoughts:

    The fact that the business has failed implies that there are some deficiencies in the business model (maybe insufficient demand for such products?). But I think the moral indignation over the model is a little misplaced.

    At first glance, it is troubling that the business seeks to use public resources for profit. But is this really so troubling? As far as I can tell from the article, Manning is not seeking an exclusive license over public trees. Private consumption of this resource is not categorically problematic, as you seem to be fine with a private citizen gathering the food to eat. Any one is still free to spend his/her time to harvest the food. No one who wants this food as it is would be forced to pay Manning for it. Rather, Manning is trying to provide some of the labor of collecting, processing, and perhaps shipping the food. In this sense, his business plan sounds like hiring fisherman to catch and sell fish from the open seas. Like with fishing, there is a potential problem of over-consumption of the commons. But that’s an issue of degree, not of kind.

    Additionally, what normally happens to these nuts and berries? Are they all eaten for free, or does much of this food go uneaten to begin with? Manning indicates that much of it simply falls to the ground and is wasted. Insofar as it’s uneaten, that indicates that in its raw form, people generally do not find it worth their time to harvest the food. If that’s the case, and there are people willing to pay for his products, then he is producing value out of an under-utilized public asset. It can’t be better to simply have this food rot on the ground.

    As for the minimum wage jobs to homeless persons, again what is the alternative? They can’t be better off with no job at all. Now it might be nice if they were paid a wage greater than the legal minimum, but potentially that would price some of the potential workers out. Plus,by working a minimum wage job, these people would obtain eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which would further boost incomes above the minimum. As it is, even at the prevailing minimum wage, it appears that this job would be about as good as any one is willing to offer.

    Additionally, if any homeless person is willing to take this job, that implies that the minimum wage exceeds the value he/she would receive from harvesting the food on his/her own.

    I agree there are better ways of combating homelessness, but this sort of enterprise wouldn’t preclude other types of efforts.

    In sum, if the alternative is that this public food source ends up uneaten, and the prospective homeless employees go unemployed, then this business would make society better off.

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