Healthy farms, food and families by choice, not chance

Sure, those vegetables at the supermarket look great. But what do you really know about how good they are for you, and what their production is doing to the land?

by Wendy Gordon, reprinted from The Green Guide for Everyday Life, #13, with permission
ew of us realize - as we race through the grocery aisles planning and gathering food for the week ahead, or maybe just for the next meal - that with our food choices we are casting a "vote" for or against sustainable food production. But, as writer/farmer Wendell Berry says, "How we eat determines to a considerable extent how the world is used."

Down on the farm?

The integrity of the food system once relied on an implied social contract with the nation's farmers. When the United States shifted from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, this "contract" assured those who left the farm that the food system would perform to a standard that served everyone well. Consumers could count on abundant supplies of food at the grocery store. Food would be cheap, and it would be wholesome. People knew where their food came from. They counted on the integrity of the farmers who grew it and the people who processed it. People trusted the system to produce safe food.
In the 1990s, most of us are several generations removed from the farm. Yet we may still assume the unspoken "contract" with farmers will protect our food supply. However, the food production industry is now so complex it is difficult to determine who actually is responsible for providing safe food. The quality of the food supply is no longer guaranteed.

Food as a commodity

Powerful global food conglomerates now make most of the critical decisions about what foods to produce, where and how they are grown, treated and handled. Indeed, four multinational food companies now control the production and marketing of over 40 percent of four basic commodities: corn, soybeans, wheat and rice.
As commodities to be bought and sold at a profit, foods are bred to maximize production. "Industrial" traits are preferred, such as a plant's ability to withstand heavy machinery and assault by toxic pesticides, uniformity in ripening, tensile strength for shipping, and cosmetic appearance. While traditional agriculture depended on 80,000 species of plants, industrial agriculture now provides most of the food on our planet from just 150 varieties. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has found that "nearly all plant-breeding programs in the United States emphasize yield, uniformity, market acceptability and pest resistance, but not nutritional quality." Indeed, breeding plants for the characteristics desirable for industrial production and marketing often lowers the plants' nutritional values.

Dubious benefits

Up against these huge food conglomerates, the farmer's role is increasingly tenuous. Today, less than two percent of the population works on America's farms, down from 50 percent in the 1930s. For every dollar the consumer spends on food, the farmer receives between three and 25 cents of that dollar to pay for labor. The remaining 75 to 97 cents pays for costly machines, fossil fuels, synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, processing, packaging, advertising and distribution. Since 1950, the net income of the farmer has decreased by 32 percent.
Are the best interests of the consumer being met by industrialized farming techniques? It may appear so on the surface. Despite the dismay we may feel when we see our grocery bills, food in America is among the cheapest in the world at point-of-purchase. Major food companies are able to meet the public's demand for a cheap and abundant food supply by controlling all sectors of production. These companies manipulate consumers' shopping and eating habits, spending huge sums of money on advertising and marketing ploys. Consumers are persuaded to buy overly packaged and processed foods, trading off nutritional quality, freshness, and variety for convenience.
Fred Kirschenmann, who organically farms 3,100 acres in North Dakota, argues that what we pay in the supermarket doesn't cover many of the environmental, social and medical costs of modern agriculture - that price and convenience only tell part of the story. While these hidden costs may not be turning up in our food bill, we are paying for them in other sectors of the economy. Consider the following:

Sustainable farming as an alternative

Food bills don't reflect these hidden costs. Nor should they. Farming does not need to rely so heavily on petroleum-based chemicals and inflict harm on farmers, consumers and soil. Many farmers have already begun to establish successful alternatives. Thousands of farmers are now farming organically. Most don't use any synthetic pesticides and fertilizers at all. Raising crops free of chemicals often makes them less susceptible to drought and other natural disasters. The improved soil structure that results from using organic materials like manure is also more drought-resistant. If a farmer grows a greater variety of different crops, his farm as a whole is not as vulnerable to the same pests or seasonal weather events. Because organic and sustainable agriculture is based on understanding and working with nature's natural systems, use of expensive pesticides, fertilizers, and machinery becomes less necessary
It has now been proven that sustainable farming systems can be as productive and profitable as conventional systems. In addition, since sustainable systems operate best on a smaller scale and with more management skills, they result in more farms and more farmers. Increases in farming activity provide economic and social benefits to rural communities.
Despite its promise, sustainable agriculture has received little help from government. Research spending on sustainable agriculture is only one percent of the $1.6 billion research budget of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. None of the billions spent by the government on marketing go to sustainable agriculture. Consequently, sustainably grown food accounts for little of our total food supply. Sustainable farming will not grow unless consumers understand the value of sustainably produced foods.
Once aware of the advantages to the environment, health, rural economies and the future of food production - made possible through the adoption of sustainable production practices - you can use your grocery dollars to vote for better, healthier food choices. Consumers spent $524 billion on food and beverages in 1993. If we direct this dollar power toward foods grown, processed, packaged and marketed with "sustainability" in mind, we will see a real "green" revolution in the marketplace.

Wendy Gordon is co-founder and Acting Executive Director of Mothers & Others for a Livable Planet, Inc. The Green Guide for Everyday Life is published by Mothers and Others, a nonprofit organization dedicated to translating environmental concerns to everyday life by providing practical, solutions-oriented information. Write for membership and subscription information: 40 West 20th St., New York, NY 10011, or call 212-242-0010.