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,
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
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
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
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:
- Conventional farmers rely heavily on pesticides that may cause cancer
and disturbing aberrations to our reproductive systems and, in turn, to
our offspring's. Of the 28 most commonly used pesticides, at least 23 are
potentially carcinogenic. The NAS projects thousands of new cancers per
year from pesticide residues in food alone. Farmers in the midwest were
warned in 1994 to wash their work clothes in a separate machine from their
family's because of the high incidence of tumors and cancers among farmers'
wives and children.
- Industrial agriculture uses at least 81 percent of our nation's water.
Groundwater is also contaminated by farming chemicals. The Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA) has found at least 90 pesticides in the groundwater
of 38 states.
- At least one-third of the nation's topsoil has been lost to erosion,
and approximately eight tons per acre continue to erode annually. Each lost
inch of topsoil causes a six percent drop in yields.
- Tens of thousands of farmers, intimately acquainted with local ecosystems,
have been replaced by machines and chemicals. Most food bought and sold
in the United States travels an average of 1,300 miles before it reaches
our tables, burning large amounts of U.S. subsidized fossil fuel.
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.