Tag Archives: Labeling

Is Buying Food Locally More Important than Eating Local Food?

One of my favorite times of the year is upon us – The Harvest Season.

This weekend, my family will trek out to the Wellspring Harvest Fest – A good ol’ hoe down and celebration of the season!  Wellspring Farm is the community supported agriculture (CSA) program we have supported for the last four years, and the Fest is an incredible celebration of the season’s bounty, where the Wellspring CSA community gathers to eat incredible food, avoid rotten tomato on our faces in the infamous tomato toss (might need to renamed the “late blight” toss this year), tour the farm on a hay ride and add our own painted touches to the farm’s annual Harvest Fest sign.

In a couple more weeks, we will be joining many people throughout Vermont and I believe the country in an “Eat Local” challenge, where for one week my family will commit to eating as much locally grown or raised food as possible.

These celebrations, while wonderful opportunities to connect with our local/regional food community, also make me think about what we will do over the remaining 50 weeks of the year. Will conventional food thinking settle back in? It seems likely for most people, making the challenge of building up regional food economies all the more difficult.

Does it have to be that way? Are there things we can do to support regional food throughout the year, especially in regions where the growing season is short and/or the breadth of products grown and raised are narrow?

There is one thing that immediately jumps to mind. Raise the importance of “Buy Local” to the same level afforded “Eat Local,” since without a thriving farm-gate-to-your-plate regional food infrastructure, progress toward more sustainable food systems will be slow going. Seems easy enough…on the surface, but rebuilding and strengthen regional food economies will be the farthest thing from “easy.”

Over the last 50 years, America’s food landscape has changed considerably, especially in terms of how power and control over the food we eat has concentrated in the hands of large-scale, and often global corporate interests. Here’s a snap shot that I’m betting most people haven’t seen before:

  • Seed Companies: What was once a highly diversified, regional industry is now controlled primarily by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta. And while most of Monsanto’s press is about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the company has quietly bought up a large number of seed companies to gain access to a rapidly expanding seed patent portfolio. Dupont is following suit.
  • Farms: According to the USDA, “Small farms, while numerous, account for less than 2 percent of all U.S. farmland, while large farms account for 67 percent. Consequently, the growth in the number of large farms has increased the concentration of crop production.” What is especially problematic with this trend is that farms in the middle have all but disappeared, which are the types of farms that will be needed to support regional food systems.
  • Meat Packers: According to Sustainable Table, four companies controlled processing of over 80% of the country’s beef and three of these same four companies (along with an additional fourth) process over 60% of the country’s pork. Four major companies in broiler chicken processing provide over half of the country’s chicken supply. Same for turkey meat. Large scale meat packing operations don’t do regional well (prefer CAFOs) or local at all.
  • Food Processors: Euromonitor International reports that the packaged food industry is worth almost $1.6 trillion. While there’s some debate about how accurate that number is, consider that the Top 50 U.S. processors alone accounted for $326 billion or nearly 25 percent of the global market. Add in European giants like Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury Schwebbs (which Kraft is attempting to gain control of in a $16.7 billion takeover), Danone and others, and you fast approach a majority of the market. Leaves little room on food retailers’ shelves for local or regional processed foods.
  • Food Retailers: Wal-Mart is at the top of the heap with nearly $100 billion in food sales. The next 49 companies all report income over $1.0 billion dollars. On a global scale, the USDA reports that “The top 15 global supermarket companies account for more than 30 percent of world supermarket sales.” Serious concentration that is buying up or crushing regional food chains and killing off mom-and-pop stores left and right.

With this in mind, take a couple minutes to consider your local food retail landscape.

How many locally or regionally-owned food stores or member-owned food cooperatives are there? If any, how much impact do you think they have on your region’s food economy? In other words, do they represent enough demand to support regional farmers, distribution, processing, etc.? Check out their shelves next time you shop there (or make a special trip if you haven’t shopped there before). Where do you think that food is coming from?

As each of gets a clearer picture, which may seem bleak at first, you should also see tremendous opportunities to change how consumers interface with the food they eat.

For example, imaging developing innovative, regional food retail formats open every day (v. once-a-week farmers markets and CSA programs) that provide consumers with real choices in the food they buy. Such choices, financed by our three votes per day (i.e., breakfast, lunch and dinner), will empower every one of us to buy more of the food we eat from local sources. This increasing demand for regionally grown, raised and processed food, as well as other sustainable foods, will justify increased investments in the infrastructure needed to provide more regional foods to consumers every day. Instead of spiraling down, as is the case with the industrialized food system, we will be spiraling up.

Ultimately, the choice of how we spend our food dollars is up to us. But until we have more convenient (e.g., open seven days a week), transparent (e.g., origin labeling) food retail options to choose from, do we really have a choice? Not as much choice as we deserve, so let’s get started in changing that.

Your first task – after finishing your successful “Eat Local” challenge this harvest season, assuming you participated – is to increase your financial support (i.e., spending our food dollars) of local and regional food retailers.

And if you can’t find one, then maybe you or someone you know should consider opening one yourself.

Happy Harvest!

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The Evolution of Pro Food

Like most ideas, Pro Food didn’t just happen. It was the culmination of nearly a decade of thinking, reading and talking about food and related systems, especially over the last six months.

Pro Food’s timing had the good fortune of intersecting with several well established sustainable food movements, including organic food, school lunch programs, Slow Food and a series of thought-provoking food documentaries (e.g., Food Inc, FRESH and King Corn) and investigative books (e.g., Fast Food Nation, Omnivore’s Dilemma, The End of Food).

The following series of blog posts provide the reader with a sense of how Pro Food emerged over the last four months, including several posts that build on the core principles put forward in Pro Food Is, the defining post of the Pro Food idea.

Chronological List of Key Pro Food Posts:

  • Is Organic Food the Answer? (March 18, 2009) – This initial post on Every Kitchen Table frames the need for new food systems connecting more consumers with sustainably grown, processed and transported food. It highlights retail interfaces, sustainability labeling and narrow food product offerings. Read more.
  • Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough (March 27, 2009) – Much attention is being given to community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, but these programs are not a scalable solution in dealing with large-scale food system problems. The post provides lessons learned that can be applied to new, scalable solutions. Read more.
  • 10 Ways to Save Real Food (April 14, 2009) – This post offered the first comprehensive list of strategies for attacking what Michael Pollan refers to as “nutritionism”, an effective approach used by food manufacturers to make highly-processed “edible foodlike substances” appear to be on par with wholesome real foods. The list touched on labeling, marketing claims, access, school food and low-income programs, among others. Read more.
  • Can Farmers Markets & CSA Farms Really Grow Sustainable Food? (April 30, 2009) – Direct to consumer food sales are providing numerous valuable lessons for building regionally-focused sustainable food systems. Unfortunately, as this post spells out in detail, they are up against heavily subsidized programs for growing commodity crops as ingredients in highly-processed foods, which received nearly $17 billion in 2006. Read more.
  • 10 Reasons Why “Local”  is Challenging Industrial Food (May 14, 2009) – The sustainable food debate has tended to focus on industry and advocates.  This post begins moving toward the inclusive principle in Pro Food to find effective solutions to meet the needs of consumers based on where they live and what they value. It also introduces transparency and general themes on decentralized food. Read more.
  • Closing the Farm to Table Knowledge Gap (June 19, 2009) – One of the largest factors in allowing our food system to get to where it is today, a system too complex and concentrated for most people to understand, is the gap resulting from people trading our historic farming knowledge for cheap, convenient food. This post focuses on the impacts this is having on our health, the environment and our livelihoods. Read more.
  • Pro Food Is (June 30, 2009) – After six months of intensive focus on food systems and entrepreneurial approaches to helping improve markets for sustainable foods, seven core principles emerged in this landmark post. The intent of Pro Food is to drive these principles into mainstream entrepreneurship and accelerate the development of successful alternative food systems. Read more.
  • Building Out Pro Food (July 6, 2009) – From Zachary Cohen’s Farm-to-Table blog: With the release of Pro Food Is, Zachary Cohen spells out how we can now move beyond the traditional language of American politics, e.g., us versus them, bad versus good, etc. Next up is how to most effectively build out Pro Food from a modest statement of principles into something greater. Read more.
  • Why Pro Food Will Succeed (July 7, 2009) – From Zachary Cohen’s Farm-to-Table blog: Zachary explains how the sustainable food movement is at the point in its evolution where new leadership is needed to push things to the next level. It is at times like this that individuals/entrepreneurs seize the moment and use the tumult to their advantage, which is at the core of Pro Food’s mission. Read more.
  • The First Pro Food Product? (July 8, 2009) – From Fredo Martin’s ihatetomentionit blog: Fredo Martin asks what form Pro Food might take in his thought provoking post. At a minimum, it will be important to relate Pro Food to each stage of the food chain in order to propel alternative food systems forward. Read more.
  • Slow Food with Entrepreneurial Twist (July 8, 2009) – The Slow Food movement has done much to reestablish links between food and terrior (location-specific traits) around the globe. In the US, where the industrial system was already well established, the movement faced an entrenched, centralized infrastructure, unlike what is typical around the globe. Pro Food stands apart in its efforts to revitalize the entrepreneurial side of the American food system. Read more.
  • The Five Stones of Pro Food (July 23, 2009) – With the introduction of Pro Food and the foundation basically set, this post shifts gears by focusing on the things that make Pro Food business ventures unique in the food business landscape. Establishing such competitive advantages will be a key part of realizing the Pro Food vision. Read more.
  • The Pro Food Primer (August 4, 2009) – From Zachary Cohen’s Farm-to-Table blog: Zach offers up a great, more in-depth and narrative-based look at the history of Pro Food. Read more.

This posts provides a Pro Food reading list of sorts, but the idea of Pro Food is surely much greater than any one list or collection of people. Those of us working at the forefront of Pro Food look forward to many new voices joining our efforts. If you have a Pro Food blog post or article that you want us to help promote, please email me at robert.b.smart (at) gmail.com.

Every Kitchen Table and Pro Food are proud supporters of FoodRenegade’s Fight Back Fridays.

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Guess Who’s Controlling Our Food Supply

It’s no secret that I have a difficult time accepting genetically modified (GM) foods at face value. My primary concerns have to do with what we know, and, more importantly don’t know about how this “promising” technology may or may not be impacting human health and our environment.

For those who prefer to avoid serving as human lab rats, myself included, our non-GM food options, according to advocates of GM food, boil down to eating USDA Certified Organic, which do not allow any genetically modified seed or crops to be used on such labeled food products. Their idea of severely limiting consumer choice, since they are adamantly opposed to “GMO Inside” labeling, goes against their own argument of freedom to choose, which also goes against the very fabric of what makes America’s version of capitalism work so well.

I couldn’t imagine the situation getting much worse, but it just did.

The latest issue of Scientific American Magazine includes the chilling article “Do Seed Companies Control GM Crop Research?” The magazine’s editors take readers beyond initial “government” approval of GM food, which reportedly utilized industry-sponsored research rather than independent government research, to the current state of independent research on genetically modified seeds and crops:

Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.

It would be chilling enough if any other type of company were able to prevent independent researchers from testing its wares and reporting what they find—imagine car companies trying to quash head-to-head model comparisons done by Consumer Reports, for example. But when scientists are prevented from examining the raw ingredients in our nation’s food supply or from testing the plant material that covers a large portion of the country’s agricultural land, the restrictions on free inquiry become dangerous.

It is hard to understand how a handful of companies have amassed so much control over food ingredients found in an estimated 75 percent of processed foods in America’s supermarkets. Making matters worse, and as the Scientific American editors point out, we are talking about a basic physiological need – food, which joins water, shelter and a handful of other needs defined by Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of needs.

Without extensive independent research on GM foods on how they impact human health and the environment, the distinct possibility exists that we’re setting ourselves up for significant and potentially irreversible problems down the line.

To keep the mainstream in check, we get slick multimillion dollar advertising campaigns from company’s like Monsanto claiming they have the solution to feed the estimated 9 billion people expected on the planet in the not to distant future, among other claims. Who cares if these claims have not been independently verified. Who cares if the Union of Concerned Scientists have released a report on GM crop yields debunking industry claims of significant yield improvements.

Despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields.

The ongoing debate is not about stopping public relations (PR) efforts by these companies. Companies market products and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Nor is it about whether I or anyone else thinks GM foods are good or bad. Making such claims today are mostly opinion, since independent research is not available to properly inform discussions.

The debate needs to be about how our regulatory structure has sold out to industry, which is represented by a highly concentrated, centralized  power structure that controls our conventional food system. It needs to be about holding the food system and our government accountable. Most important, it needs to demand companies and the government do what is right, just and fair.

We are a long way from that, it would seem, which is why initiatives like Pro Food and Slow Money are gaining steam. These efforts actively engage everyday citizens in developing and supporting transparent sustainable food systems, building on unique competitive advantages in comparison with today’s industrial food system players.

Let’s just hope that a sustainable food economy is not far behind.

A Sustainable Recipe for America

It isn’t often that I read a review that makes me want to get up and buy a book, but I just read one of the exceptions.

Paula Crossfields’ Civil Eats review on Jill Richardson’s Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It describes an intelligent and informed investigation of why sustainable food should be everyone’s priority.

Review Excerpt: “Like a handbook for the sustainable advocate in training, Recipe for America feels like a one-on-one session with a pro in the trenches. It gives the reader the tools they need to be up-to-date on the state of the food movement, the pending legislation and state of the political process as it pertains to food. So pick up a copy, and join the ranks. The good food movement needs YOU!”

This call to action is not about joining yet another “movement.” To me, its about understanding the importance and impact of our everyday food decisions, which Recipe for America appears to spell out in compelling terms, e.g.,:

Book Excerpt: “In the end, the numerous problems in our food system — pollution, human rights abuses, poor food safety, the breakdown of rural communities, the decline in our health — are hardly random. Instead, they stem from a common thread of industrialization, which occurred primarily over the second half of the twentieth century.

The challenge of slowing, then reversing, industrial food’s death grip on American consumers becomes clear when you consider how American’s shifting calories to sustainable foods would impact bottom lines.

According to Paul Roberts in The End of Food, our food system was generating 4,000 calories per person in 2000 (expect it is even higher today), up from 3,100 calories in 1950, already more calories than what an average individual needs.  People are consuming too much food, especially highly-processed types. On that point, Mr. Roberts cites that for every 100 calorie reduction in the American diet, industrial food companies will lose over $30 billion dollars per year. If we were to reset calories at 1950 levels, industrial food would lose over a quarter trillion dollars every year. Throw on top of that a recommend shift toward sustainable foods (i.e., not manufactured, highly processed foodlike substances), and you can see a double whammy of historic proportions forming.

Clearly, industrial food will not change on its own. It can’t afford to if it wants to survive as is.  Therefore, America’s consumers need to follow Ms. Richardson’s sound advice to help force the necessary changes:

Review Excerpt: But the greatest barrier of all, she writes, may be the lack of recognition on the part of the government that sustainable agriculture practices are superior to industrial agriculture, and for that to change, we need public outcry.

Each one of us can get a great jump on doing that by reading Recipe for America, becoming informed and knowledgeable, and crying out for change!

In the meantime, do what you can to vote with your dollars. Buy sustainable. Buy organic. Buy local/regional.

COOL-ing Down Monsanto

I have to hand it to Monsanto.

A company representative on Twitter recently engaged me in a dialog about whether labeling products containing GMO food would do any harm, and, if so, to whom.

While the dialog felt like another cut-and-paste debate between me and previously published Monsanto paraphernalia, it offered just enough information about how Monsanto defends against mandatory GMO labeling. Clearly, anyone informed about consumer sentiments regarding GMO food knows that such labeling would devastate Monsanto and other GM seed companies’ bottom line. Which explains the vigorous, even suffocating effort by Monsanto to control the conversation.

The specific question I asked on Twitter was:  Dear Monsanto, What would be the harm in labeling GMO foods, regardless of whether same as non-GMO food?

I didn’t send the tweet to a specific person, so anyone was welcome to jump in. Thankfully, @Mica_MonsantoCo (Twitter name of Mica Veihman, Monsanto Public Affairs) decided to take a crack at answering my question. Some of her responses included:

  • “U.S. labeling laws are based on health & safety, not choice.”
  • “Harm is having mandated labeling of something that doesn’t have a scientific reason for it.”
  • “I don’t want food companies passing along cost of labeling to me for something they say has no bearing on my health or safety.”
  • “No it [organic] doesn’t have a scientific reason, that’s why organic is a marketing program.”
  • “Harm is making people think there is health or safety problem with their food.”
  • “We do not support a government-mandated label which is reserved for health or safety issues.”

Do you see a pattern? Visit the Monsanto link Mica provided during our chat and you will see the theme continued:

Some might ask what the harm would be in requiring the labeling of products. U.S. labeling laws are based on health and safety. Requiring labeling for ingredients that don’t pose a health issue would undermine both our labeling laws and consumer confidence. Ensuring that such labeling is accurate would also put a huge burden on regulatory agencies.

Again and again, Monsanto stresses that mandatory labeling for foods containing GMOs would undermine the U.S. labeling system. At first, it seemed like Monsanto might have a point. After all, “Certified Organic” is not mandatory, nor is “Non-GMO,” since neither relates to health or safety,  at least not from the industrial food system’s perspective.

Then I remembered the recently launched USDA Country of Origin Label (COOL) program, mandated by Congress through the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills.

The 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills amended the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to require retailers to notify their customers of the country of origin of muscle cut and ground meats including beef, veal, lamb, pork, chicken, and goat meat; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; perishable agricultural commodities (fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables); peanut, pecans, and macadamia nuts; and ginseng.

Did Congress implement this law because of health and safety concerns? No. It did so to assist U.S. food producers in establishing competitive advantage based on the assumption that U.S. consumers, if given country of origin information, would buy U.S. products over imported ones. No mention of health. No mention of safety. Nor have I read anywhere how COOL has undermined our country’s labeling laws or consumer confidence.

Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, summed COOL up nicely: “I strongly support Country of Origin Labeling—it’s a critical step toward providing consumers with additional information about the origin of their food.

Did you catch that? The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture highlighted consumer choice as the reason for a mandatory food labeling program. Given that 95 percent of U.S. consumers surveyed want GMO labeling, incidentally the same percentage that favor country of origin labeling, doesn’t it seem like leaders in Washington should step up for consumer choice again?

A less important, but still interesting question is how Monsanto can make supposedly definitive statements over and over again that  are factually incorrect and misleading?

That’s the Monsanto way.

Related Posts:

10 Ways to Save Real Food

Yesterday, I wrote about a confluence of factors that helped create the substantial sustainability problems our food system now faces (see “The Rise and Fall of Nutritionism Ideology“). The post’s title suggests that the “Fall” has occured, but we know better.  I was simply setting up today’s post which describes one coordinated strategy for accelerating what I hope is nutritionism’s eventual decline.

My suggestions primarily focus on the marketing side of food, since people like David Murphy at Food Democracy and others are attacking food related issues at the legislative and policy level.  There are obviously overlaps where lobbying Congress and the Administration will be required, and I look forward to joining coalitions of sustainable food advocates fighting for the necessary legislative changes.

Rather than wade into such political battles, my focus is on a “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” strategy, where regions, retailers and consumers have the power to ultimately rule the day. The following list outlines the major components of that strategy.  I strongly encourage any and all comments, suggestions, etc. to these recommendations, especially if you see something missing!

  1. Food Labeling – Reinstate the Food, Drug and Commerce Act of 1938’s “imitation” label requirement, which may be the most important label for consumers since it instantly identifies fake food.  Taking the food industry head-on faces steep odds, so I am recommending a new breed of food retailers applies such labels on its shelves, moving consumers’ focus from products and packaging.
  2. Industry-Sponsored Research – Outlaw the use of nutritional claims from “independent research” funded by corporate interests, unless the sponsoring companies are listed as the lead in the study.  As long as industry is able to regularly shift its “nutritional orthodoxy” using the sophisticated marketing of these studies, consumers will be kept off balance and less able to make informed decisions on a regular basis.
  3. Regional Food Systems – Accelerate the development of regional food systems that expand the production of sustainable crops and livestock, and allow for affordable local and/or regional processing of those foods, e.g., slaughterhouses.  States and regions should also evaluate land use laws, land trusts and other measures to preserve (and hopefully expand) valuable crop land.
  4. Consumer Access – Rapidly expand consumer access to regional and other (e.g., Fair Trade) sustainable foods, including raw foods and lightly-processed products.  While farmers markets and CSA programs are very popular right now, we must develop new retail formats that bring food to a greatly expanded customer base (see Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough).  One caution: This may require some regional foods be temporarily diverted from restaurants and institutions (except K-12 schools) until supply can catch up.  A happy problem to solve!
  5. Food Experiences – Create intimate food buying experiences to build consumer confidence in cooking at home and positively reinforce such behaviors over time.  For example, many farmers market shoppers state that they enjoy talking to the farmer that grew the food they are buying.  It gives them confidence in the food and makes them feel good at the same time.  Now imagine replacing the farmer (who I hope will grow even more real food) with chefs and cooks capable of creating similar positive experiences around cooking that same food.
  6. School Kitchens – Bring cooking back to every school kitchen in America and utilize as much local food as possible, including food harvested from edible schoolyards.  This will help reacquaint a generation with real foods and where they come from, and will be made even more powerful if it is accompanied by a creative and fun “farm-to-table” curriculum.
  7. No Food Marketing Zones – Progress is being made in some school districts already, e.g., NYC, but what I am recommending calls for the removal of all branded food products and related advertising from K-12 schools (exceptions: branded foods used in school kitchens).  Our children need “safe zones” where industry can’t reach them, and where they can objectively learn the pros and cons of different types of foods. District by district we can do this!
  8. No Fast Food Zones – Ban fast food restaurants within an appropriate distance from schools, making it inconvenient or impossible for kids to get there and back during lunch time.  The more we can do to “expand” healthy food options for the children the better.
  9. Low-Income Programs – Provide financial incentives for low-income households to purchase sustainable food by making benefits go further when making such purchases.  While this may require additional funds be made available up front, improving the diets of children and parents in these households offers significant returns on the investment, e.g., better health, better grades, etc.
  10. Food Pyramid – Tear down the long standing food pyramid, which simply repackages the food industry’s play book, and replace it with a message that encourages people to eat less, which is what the U.S. Senate initially recommended in 1977 before an onslaught of industry pressure got them to back off.  We could also channel Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  Or we might consider Harvard’s alternative Healthy Eating Pyramid.

The common theme running throughout these recommendations is improving how consumers (households, really) interface with food at the point of purchase.  Currently, the typical American consmer is at the mercy of the “nutritional industrial complex” that Pollan describes.  What I am envisioning are innovative retail experiences that answer to consumers, not food giants or the government (except as required by law, of course), thus giving consumers back the control over their experience with food.

Thanks to Foodimentary (via Twitter), I have a new favorite quote from J.R.R. Tolkien that sums up this post rather nicely…

If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world.”

Related Information and Links:

30 Years of Messing Up Food

Over the weekend, I finally had the opportunity to watch King Corn, a documentary following an acre of corn.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you do.  Like Michael Pollan’s books, especially The Omnivore’s Dilemma, it helps connect the dots regarding U.S. food policy, industrialized food, fast food, and more.

King Corn also inspired me to dust off my copy of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, the book that in many ways sparked my interest in sustainable food systems.  As a history of the fast food industy, I am hoping a reread will help me better understand fast food’s role in creating today’s unsustainable food system, especially before the early 1970s when U.S. agriculture policy took a 180 degree turn.

At this point, here are what I believe are the major contributors that have created the food “mess” we find ourselves today (What’s missing?):

  1. Urban Sprawl – The U.S. interstate system, cheap oil, and the rapid growth of the auto industry contributed to a significant migration of people out of America’s cities to the suburbs.  I am sure there were other contributors.  Regardless, this exodus provided the perfect accelerator for a young fast food industry to move beyond its humble roots to the mainstream.  Soon, fast food joints were popping up at every interstate exit.  With such significant growth opportunities in sight, fast food industry leaders recognized the need for even cheaper food to fund its expansion.
  2. U.S. Agriculture Policy – In the early 1970s, under Ag Secretary Earl L. Butz, and as pointed out in King Corn, the U.S. shifted from a policy of paying farms not to produce, to subidizing over production.  According to the New York Times, “Mr. Butz maintained that a free-market policy, encouraging farmers to produce more and to sell their surplus overseas, could bring them higher prices.”
  3. 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act –  This Act of Congress required that any food product that wasn’t the real thing must include the word “imitation” on its label.  Around the same time that Secretary Butz was moving agriculture through its 180 degree swing, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quitely repealed the Act, thus giving food manufacturers something they had been lobbying for for decades.  Without such labeling, something like Sara Lee’s Soft & Smooth Whole Grain White Bread, along with its very long list of ingredients could be classified as “real” bread the same way as freshly baked bread with 4-5 whole food ingredients. [Thanks to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food for pointing out this critical policy change (quote).]
  4. High Fructose Corn Syrup Industry – In my recent post titled Is Industrial Food Stealing Farmers Lunch Money?, I highlighted a 12-cent shift in the allocation of consumer expenditures on food since the early 1980.  That 12 cents of every dollar now goes to the “food marketing system” instead of farmers who saw their share go from 31 cents of every dollar to 19 cents (a 40% decline).  What I learned from King Corn is that this shift began around the same time that significant corn surpluses motivated large investments in developing cheaper high fructose corn syrup, which was helped by declines in corn prices.

The result of all of this is an abundance of cheap food in America, much of which would be better defined as fast or fake cheap food.  Of course Earl Butz, during an on-screen interview in King Corn, was proud of the fact that we can now feed ourselves with 16-17 percent of our take-home pay, leaving us more money to spend on other things.  On the surface, this makes a lot of sense.

Unfortunately, increasing amounts of  our money now goes toward rapidly increasing health care costs, which in large part are due to our deterioting health caused by what we eat.  If it hasn’t happened already, I’m betting before too long that consumer spending on food plus health care will leave us pretty much where we started – tight family budgets and a lower quality of life.

Seems like the perfect time to shift from our “Quantity Economy” to one of quality.  Granted it likely means eating less and paying more, but the alternative is not sustainable.

Related Information and Links: