Closing the Farm to Plate Knowledge Gap

In the battle for the hearts and minds (and pocket books) of everyday Americans, the large corporate players in today’s industrial food system must be pleased.

Consumer advocates for sustainable, healthy food are fighting with farmers, not because either picked a fight with the other, but because the knowledge gap between them has grown so expansive that misunderstandings rule the day. Credit the gap to industrial specialization and consumer marketing, which I will return to in a moment. Often times, these misunderstandings turn personal, further driving apart two groups that have much to gain by working together.

How this benefits the industrial food players may not be obvious, but by fighting amongst ourselves, we are paying less attention to the mechanized system generating massive amounts of unhealthy, environmentally unfriendly food and unprecedented concentrations of profits.

For the average consumer, and likely many farmers, the “black box” of industrial food is a mystery. There is little to no transparency, except through increasingly common investigative journalism and documentaries, which industrialists and their associations quickly line up to discredit.  Keeping us in the dark allows industrial food processors and large food retailers to paint an idyllic picture of grassy fields and red barns backed annually by an estimated $33 billion1 spent on advertising to reinforce a desired, yet highly inaccurate image of where our food comes from.

Unfortunately, they have most of us fooled, which is why it is critical that we – consumers and farmers alike – find a shared set of priorities to unite our voices in securing safe, healthy, tasty food for generations to come. Let us abandon overused stereotypes and language that divides us, and instead concentrate on educating consumers about where the food they eat comes from, including industrial and “alternative” food systems.

Closing the farm-to-plate knowledge gap won’t be easy. With the earliest advances in agriculture resulting in food surpluses, people, no longer physically needed on the farm, moved to urban centers to pursue non-agricultural careers. As the years passed and the complexity of the food system increased, people came to rely, exclusively in most cases today, on food processors and retailers to provide for them. In effect, we traded knowledge for convenient, cheap food.

On the surface, this seems like a great tradeoff, and for most of agriculture’s history it has been. Civilizations prospered. Farmers made a decent living. Consumers readily found fresh produce, meats, and other ingredients to prepare wholesome, nutritious, tasty meals. But things started to change. Industrialization intensified. Corporate consolidation accelerated. Seeds became intellectual property (protected by patents). High-paid lobbyists proliferated. Politicians bowed. And, most important, people stopped paying attention.

Take a snap shot of today’s food system. Study the details. What you find are a number of increasingly dramatic side effects that most people are not aware of, most of which are getting worse.

  • Today’s average farmer makes about 55 percent less money for the food they grow than they did 50 years ago. According to the USDA, farmers’ share of consumer food expenditures dropped from about $0.40 per dollar in 1950 to around $0.19 in 2006. The balance of consumer expenditures, termed the Marketing Bill, goes to “value-add” (i.e., industrial food companies).
  • While farmers’ financial situations have deteriorated, food manufacturers’ fortunes have skyrocketed to the tune of $3.1 trillion in revenues per year with above average profit margins. Judging by the fact that the Top 50 Food Processors and Top 50 Supermarket & Grocery Chains all have over $1.0 billion in annual sales, with Wal-Mart topping the list at nearly $100 billion, increasing concentrations of power are clear.
  • One billion people are obese, thanks in part to value-add convenience foods (e.g., fast food, prepared meals, snacks, sodas), massive advertising campaigns, and time-constrained lifestyles (e.g., two income households with kids). This, while another one billion people go hungry, bypassed because they are unable to provide profit margins required by industrial food.
  • According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, obesity (one of the “western diseases” attributed to diet) accounted for $75 billion in extra medical costs in 2003. The Journal of the American Medical Association attributed some 112,000 premature deaths in 2000 to obesity. These additional health care costs, half of which are paid for by taxpayers, have all but erased the cost-of-living savings claimed by the makers of cheap, convenient food. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
  • Analysis by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization reports that agriculture contributes 14% of human-released greenhouse gases each year, through methane from livestock and rice paddies, nitrous oxide from fertilizers, and fossil fuel use during production. In an era where controlling carbon emissions is critical, the industrialized food system must change or give up market share to environmentally friendly alternatives.

We have turned our food over to a system that doesn’t have our best interests in mind, despite what billions of dollars of advertising tell us. Power is concentrated, not by farms or consumers, but by multi-national corporations. Increasing complexity rules the day, making it harder for even those in industry to keep food safe. And the halls of Congress are jammed with food system lobbyists fighting for more power, or, at a minimum, maintaining the status quo.

It’s up to us – farmers and consumers – to take back control of the food we eat. At a minimum, we need to fight for the checks and balances needed to ensure safe, affordable, and environmentally-friendly food for generations to come. It won’t be easy given the stacked deck industry is playing with. But by thoughtfully considering each other’s perspectives, while separating ourselves from the complex, concentrated, industrial food system, we will find the common ground necessary to drive the change we seek.

Rob Smart is a food entrepreneur focusing on regional food systems and consumer retail experiences. He blogs on alternative food systems at Every Kitchen Table and Civil Eats (guest blogger), and micro-blogs on Twitter as Jambutter.

12 responses to “Closing the Farm to Plate Knowledge Gap

  1. Great post, Rob, and it rings so true. I’ve chatted with a number of farmers online who feel threatened by me. They assume that because I want more sustainable, ecologically diverse farms, I’m their enemy. Because I blame giant agribusinesses for so much, that I’m blaming them. Nothing could be further from the truth! I love my farmers, and I want to support them and see their numbers multiply!

    This post goes a long way towards helping these farmers understand where we’re coming from, as well as helping consumers understand why farming and farm policies are so important!

    Thanks for sharing this in today’s Fight Back Fridays carnival.

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  2. Great post about the knowledge gap and how responsibility for it lies on both sides. Food is a very intimate subject and it incites emotional responses, and that goes double when folks’ livlihoods are on the line. On a human level it’s no wonder that foodies and farmers tend to clash, but only losses can come from this fight. If we can find a way to take a step back, find common ground, regroup and direct this passion in a way that solves problems for all sides then we can change the world.

  3. Good post Rob. I agree that fighting with each other is not going to help solve any problems. However, the fault for the fight dont just lie on the big ag companies that process our raw products and distrubute them as food.

    As farmers urban encroachment has always been a problem. People love the scenery that farmers provide, unfortunately when the decide to move closer to it they also bring their values with them. With these values come complaints with having to follow the slow equipment down the road, smells associated with livestock, dust from harvesting, etc; never mind the fact that all of these things existed before they moved there. As farmers we neglegted to teach these individuals about what we were doing and why, and unfortunatly just settle with the fact that it is more affordable to sell our ground to a developer and buy twice as much further away where we will not be bothered for awhile.

    Because of our strategy of isolationism consumers have lost touch with what we do and why we do it. We are learning that this strategy has been a recipe for disaster, if we dont tell the consumer what we are doing and why, an uninformed person is going to tell our story for us. Now, many facts can be learned without actually being involved with the process, but if you do not know all the facts it may look like our practices are bad, or inhumane.

    Why an I telling you this? because this is why “foodies” are more often being confronted by farmers, they are offended about the misconceptions about the products that we give our entire life, and the lives our family to produce. I am not going to disagree that most Americans diet has become unhealthy, in fact nobody is going to argue that a happymeal or microwave meal is healthy, but by saying it is the industry’s fault is misguided. Instead of trying to blame somebody else lets blame ourselves, the american society. Everyone can go to the market and buy the raw ingredients they need to make a meal, and most of the time it is cheaper than eating unhealthy. The products that you are preaching consumers to use instead of processed foods are readily availble, and the more people that use them, the more farmers will provide them.

    I could go on all day, but thank you for letting me say this much

    M. Haley

    • Mike: Thank you very much for taking the time to articulate your perspective on the “knowledge gap.” In addition to being instructive for consumers, it also highlights your passion for what you do and why. Now, if we can just harness our mutual passions, gather those that also desire healthier diets, and leverage such a collection of farmers and consumers, we might just be on to something. Cheers to you!

  4. I also really appreciate your post about the knowledge gap. It’s big and seems to be getting better. I also agree with M. Haley’s comments because as someone who has been writing about farmers and farming for the past decade, I find one of the most frustrating things about my fellow “foodies” is just what he’s saying, the lack of knowledge about the depth of a farmers love for the land and for our food and that they do literally give their entire lives to farming and to feeding us.

    Every farmer that I have met, interviewed, or written about considers him or herself a steward of our land, in fact, they are the last stewards of land that we have left and there’s more commonality between farmers and foodies than there are differences.

    That just seems to get lost in the dialogue too often.

    • Judi: It seems like we might be getting somewhere. Acknowledging there’s a gap in understanding can help people focus on improving their knowledge and building common ground. People’s ignorance regarding life on the farm, which isn’t surprising given decades of increasing separation, is a great place to start. Having said that, I also worry about “foodie” passions being misunderstood as arrogant, when what I really believe they are is “pro food.” Perhaps that is the common denominator we all share.

  5. I read this blog post, which was also syndicated to, with interest. Although I knew what GMO stands for, that was about the extent of my knowledge. Nonetheless, as someone who tries to eat healthy foods, it struck a cord with me and caused me to do a bit of looking around.

    Most of my prior knowledge was based on reading French media and the battle the Europeans fought to keep GMOs out of their food chain. I didn’t really understand why GMOs are bad, but now I have a better understanding. The multinational corporations behind them are running a pretty effective campaign to keep them out of the news here. Their argument seems to be “trust our unproven science; it won’t have any bad effects in the long run.” It seems to be about the opposite of what I’m sure is another corporate financed campaign to fuel skepticism of global warming; one of their favourite tricks is to say that climatologists are really politicians peddling unproven science.

    Now that I’m a bit more up-to-date on the GMO issue, I thank you for your well-written article which started me down the path. It’s telling that major corporations behind GMOs do not want people to know about them to the extent that they even don’t want GMO food to be labelled as such.

    Another interesting thing I noticed along the way is that industry shills pop up promptly to make negative comments on any post which is in any way critical. A good example of that was the “Biotech FAIL: Bad Science, Worse Faith and Superweeds” article posted recently on Huffington Post (“”). I understand that this has become the norm and public relations firms now routinely offer Internet monitoring and counteraction as a service to their corporate clients.

  6. I am not from the United States, I am from New Zealand where a similar disconnect is taking place albeit not as advanced as your own.

    I feel for many of our farmers who have, over time forgotten how to farm. Many have placed the agribusiness companies between themselves, their land, and their animals. They rely on advice from corporate sales reps who have no affinity with the traditional farming methods I think so many farmers secretly wish they could practice. To make matters worse, they have placed the big supermarket chains between themselves and their customers.

    Stop letting the supermarket chains do the talking for us. Go find a good farmer or two and buy direct.

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  8. Good job. You really covered the waterfront with this article. Thank you for guiding me here from Twitter. I have been reading Acres USA for years. I am not a farmer but I have a passion for sharing good news about food and it’s link to our well being. I will be rewriting my booklet “Shopping Safe, Shopping Smart and Living Well. ….questions to ask before you buy
    I’ll be in touch. Sue

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