Review:
The Secret Financial Life of Food by Kara Newman

Daniel A. Gross

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Books keep telling us that commodities change the world. Mark Kurlansky’s Cod (1998) celebrated “the fish that changed the world,” Larry Zuckerman’s The Potato (1999) praised the tuber “that rescued the Western world,” and Dan Koeppel’s Banana (2007) explored the darker side of—you guessed it—“the fruit that changed the world.” These kinds of food books remind us, often thoughtfully and enjoyably, to appreciate the sweeping impacts of what we eat. But they also tend to sketch commodities as if they’re the heroes or villains of comic books. They paint a colorful but incomplete picture of the edible world.

Kara Newman’s book The Secret Financial Life of Food is a different sort of book, and while it’s no masterpiece, it paints the first strokes of a broader portrait of food. It portrays commodities in their most abstract form, with a focus on American products: wheat sold as elevator receipts, cheddar cheese sold as cash-settled future contracts, corn sold as short tons of distillers’ dried grain.

If these financial inventions sound uncomfortably technical, it’s because our modern economy can make food weirdly intangible. In 1861, dealers of wheat and corn chewed on sample grains or mixed them with water to test their quality. Today, a trader could go his whole career without ever seeing what he trades. As Newman’s book explains, traders buy and sell futures, which are contracts representing quantities of food that haven’t been produced yet. Let’s say I trade corn in Chicago and hear that a harsh winter is coming. If I buy corn futures while they’re cheap, I’ll make a profit when frost drives up the price.

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The Secret Financial Life of Food focuses on the history of around a dozen such commodities, outlining technological and social shifts along with these financial developments. One chapter describes eggs, which used to be a seasonal product that went rancid in hot weather. In the early 1900s, old eggs were inspected and sorted, cracked into buckets, and frozen for discounted sale. After World War II, aluminum roofs on chicken coops made hens productive year-round. Ironically, once eggs became a stable commodity, they made for an unprofitable futures market—so eggs soon slipped off the map of tradable products. Finance and food are always linked, in other words, but the links can be deeply counterintuitive.

Don’t look for much philosophical reflection, though. Newman tells us what happened, but she doesn’t explore what it might all mean. There’s one big unanswered question in particular: should we be disturbed that tangible food can be reduced to invisible digital transactions? Although Newman’s book shows us what we might gain from futures trading—improved supply and a better understanding of prices—she’s not skeptical enough to explore what we might lose.

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Her lack of skepticism ultimately puts the book in an awkward position between popular and academic writing. It’s not enthralling enough for the average reader, but it’s not rigorous enough to stand as academic history. Newman quotes experts uncritically, and the high-risk wealth-grabbing world of commodities traders ends up seeming charming and benign. Maybe it really is these things, but Newman’s approach isn’t analytical enough to prove it.

So it’s best to see The Secret Financial Life of Food as a crucial first step in a much bigger journey. In our world, if you can eat it, you can sell it—and if you sell it, you can financialize it. As food lasts longer and travels farther, we need new kinds of travel guides, to help us understand the bizarre routes that food and finance take. Newman’s book helps unpack the least intuitive part of food’s journey, in the realm of finance. But we still need to figure out where we’re headed. In other words: if our commodities change the world, what sort of world are we trying to make?

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Text: Daniel A. Gross
Images: forbes, paleofuture

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