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.

15 thoughts on “Closing the Farm to Plate Knowledge Gap

  1. Pingback: Closing the Farm to Plate Knowledge Gap « Every Kitchen Table

  2. Bravo! Thank you for this. This article is the perfect, compact, portable and convenient thing to bring to a summer barbecue :)
    Yes, it is up to us to take back control of the food that we eat. We do that by growing, canning, brewing, fermenting, cooking, sprouting, baking and building our own and by knowing our farmers.

  3. I agree with most of your article, but I haven’t heard too much about sustainable food advocates and farmers fighting. Can you give any specific examples? Are you referring to disagreements between sustainable food groups and industrial farmers such as the Animal Agriculture Alliance, because obviously their priories lie in difference places. Or are you referring to disagreements between sustainable food groups and mid-side to small, local farmers? From my experience, the majority of local farmers appreciate the sustainable food movement and are happy with the boost they are getting.

    I don’t really think large corporate players in the food industry are very happy with the state of things today. The sustainable, organic food movement is growing. Direct to consumer farmer marketing is on the rise which takes a “bite” out of their profits.

  4. I’m with Sophy – terrific post, with loads of great information that I will refer back to regularly. But I do want to know more about who’s fighting and over what – I wonder if Rob’s referring to farmers who have essentially turned their farms over to “big ag,” as opposed to those who raise organic, pastured, grass-fed, etc. foods. I do believe there’s fighting there!

  5. Cornelia: I love your description of the post as “perfect, compact, portable and convenient,” and I hope it, and more important, resulting conversations are the rage of BBQs this summer.

    Sophy: Local farmer-consumer relationships appear to be quite strong and positive, e.g., farmers markets and CSA programs. Its when you put distance and scale between them that I am referring to. The tension seems to peak whenever sustainable food is brought up to commodity farmers, and I think it is at least partly due to what you mention about them not being “very happy with the state of things today.” Hopefully, working together we can change that.

  6. Sophy, As a twitter user like Rob, I have witnessed and engaged in dozens of, lets call them tiffs, with commodity farmers. They feel extremely threatened by advocates of local, sustainable farming. I am not sure why this is. I think part of it is that they are simply scared to change, which they surely must. When the writing on the wall is as clear as it is, one would think they would get educated and reach out to organizations and other farmers that can help them make the transition to better farming practices. But they really just think that local sustainable types want to lump them in with evil conglomerates, and take their lifestyles away from them. This is exactly wrong. In fact, I think many farmers would be able to turn a higher profit while at the same time taking less of a bite out of their environment, and producing healthier saner food. I am going to write a blog post with some of the comments and arguments that have popped up on Twitter. There is a great conversation going on, but sometimes the two sides just talk past each other.

  7. Sophy & Lee … if you want a great example of the fight between farmers and sustainability advocates, go to twitter.com and search for the harshtag #foodinc. The debate today got pretty vicious, with many farmers on the list accusing the sustainability folks of trying to bankrupt their families for the sake of unrealistic idealism. I am paraphrasing, but tempers were quite high and it was a good, unfiltered example of this tension in action.

  8. Pingback: Another reason to ‘buy direct’ from our farmers « sustainable grub

  9. Rob,

    Thanks for this most thoughtful analysis. I live on the rural edge of a major metropolitan area in NC where new sustainable farmers and old time family farmers sometimes find themselves at odds, even though we all want the same thing. Realizing how little the conventional farmer gets from Big Food, while farmers are going under and Big Food is prospering, is a real eye-opener. That’s why I’m excerpting and linking to it from my blog http://sustainablegrub.wordpress.com

    We’ve lost more traditional farms in N.C.than just about any state in the nation. The good news is that the smaller, sustainable farms are multiplying like rabbits as the demand for real food exceeds the supply in our area. And some of the conventional farmers are going organic and loving it.

    Best,
    Dee
    Pittsboro NC
    Twittering as: sustainablegrub

  10. Rob,
    What would make you feel better about intermediaries handling the food? Do you ever see a situation where local people being fed by only locally grown food is not feasible?

  11. I am sympathetic to farmers who feel threatened. There is a big cost to converting to organic growing. Land must be set aside to recover, subsidies are lost, etc. We must encourage government subsidies to support farmers who wish to convert from commodity to diverse crops and organic farming.

  12. Thanks for all the info everyone. I was confused about which farmers Rob was referring to as there are so many different types; big ag, big family, local, sustainable, organic, beyond organic, etc. but I get what he was after now.

    Zacary – I would love to see a blog post on some of the twitter arguments, very “new media meets the farmers.” I also completely agree with you that many are scared to be put in the “evil conglomerates” box when they definitely should not be. Most are just trying to make a living for their family, and with a bit more information on the topic, might be interested in making the switch.

    Margie – Def. going to check out the #foodinc debates.

  13. the next time you see the farmers who grow your food (soon, i hope), try asking them about subsidies for (the USDA’s definition of) “sustainable agriculture,” or about food safety legislation. you might be surprised at what you hear.

    most of the farmers i know – and i’m talking pastured poultry and heirloom tomatoes here – fear the policies pushed by urban foodies more than death itself. it saddens me that the people who will be most affected by these policies – and the people who will supposedly benefit from them – have next to no voice in the discussion.

    seriously, try asking one of us what we think sometime. you might be surprised.

  14. Kathy: You asked about intermediaries and local food providers.

    I cannot envision farmers and consumers dealing directly with one another on any sort of large scale. To that end, there must always be a “middle” that is occupied by processors, distributors, and retailers. But the current middle is dominated by commodity crops converted to cheap ingredients used to make “edible foodlike substances.” That needs to change.

    Along the same lines, and especially in heavily populated regions, “local” farms and processors will not likely ever be able to exclusively supply those markets, and will need to import food from other regions.

    Finally, I am advocating for sustainable food in general, which doesn’t require it be certified organic or otherwise, or come from local sources. Once local/regional consumer demand grows enough, and the infrastructure is in place, then it will be feasible for local suppliers to shift capacity to supplying that demand, as well as for new suppliers to come on line.

  15. The point that many farmers are all too aware of is that many of the problems with today’s food system got their start not from the big corporations, but by deliberate and well-meaning policies adopted to benefit both farmers and consumers. More cheap calories sounded great, but eventually the unintended consequences came to light as the system reached its absurd limits. The question is, what absurdities are we about to unleash upon ourselves with the next round of well intentioned farm policy? The skepticism of farmers derives from the fact that they know they will be affected greatly, yet there is even less confidence that today’s policymakers are any wiser than those of years past. For the record, I’m a CA sustainable farmer (as I understand the term.)