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.