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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Twittering as: sustainablegrub
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?
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.
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.
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.