by Sam Ihm, Marketing
On industrial agriculture, farmer suicides, being a "consumer", eating consciously, and working toward a local food system that meets our material needs.
What's Your Relationship to the Food You Buy?
What is the ultimate decision we face when choosing what food to buy at the store? Is it what we’re going to eat for dinner, or how much money we’ll have left to spend elsewhere? Or, can it be bigger than just what happens to us today?
Recently I had an eye-opening conversation with a lifelong agronomist who works alongside companies like DowDuPont and Syngenta. As soon as he mentioned he was in agriculture, my skeptic hat was on (it’s on more than it’s off). But I knew I had a lot to learn never having been on the inside.
We got to talking about his work and he mentioned how “mother nature always adapts” and that the scientists are constantly working to out-maneuver the latest adaptation. I replied that if that’s the case, why keep trying to outsmart mother nature? Why work against nature rather than with it if it's an inevitable loss? (There’s a billboard on 74 that reads, “Weeds are smart. [Ag product] is smarter.” You’ll see this better-than-nature language all over.)
His answer taught me a lot about how our food system became the way it is. “These guys have been doing it like this for 30, 40 years.” Later I mentioned to him all of the recent mergers -- Dow and DuPont have joined forces, Bayer bought Monsanto, and Syngenta is now under ChemChina -- and asked, too pointedly, “Where’s this all going?” He paused and said, “You gotta understand, this is how I’ve made a living.”
It's all kept me thinking, why do most people continue to support industrial farming practices with their life's work? Because despite the definition of the word "agriculture" agriculture as an industry today is not about farmers. Before agriculture gets on with feeding people, it must supply jobs in order to exist. People need jobs to live so they work where they can. It's a subtle form of dependency because people need the money, yet their work contributes to an industry whose main aim isn't to farm or feed people, it's to make money and it seems to have to exploit farmers to do so. US farmers commit suicide at twice the rate of veterans (8) while The Company Formerly Known As Monsanto is somehow worth $66 billion (7). If there's so much money in agriculture, who gets it all and why is it not the farmers who supply the product?
We all know the story: it's a pyramid and people are getting rich at the top on the backs of others. What we don't as often notice is how the industry uses all people to uphold the pyramid.
Don’t Call Yourself a Consumer
We’re told that we’re consumers. It might as well be tattooed on our foreheads, that’s what we are as people to this system. Just look out and listen for that word - we volunteer that title ourselves most of the time. I want to challenge the idea that we’re merely “consumers” and offer a different, more humane way of seeing ourselves.
As “consumers” we don’t view food as integral to the health of ourselves, our communities, and our planet. Instead of being something that sustains us, food becomes something we merely consume. The extent of the consumer’s role in the system is just that. “Consumers” can’t influence the greater system because they’re dependent on it. It’s a one-way street. Consumers think and act as if they shop in a vacuum because we treat shopping like it only affects us as individuals.
It’s easy to fall victim to the consumer mentality when most of the companies we buy from are Too Big To Care if they get our $5. But it’s belittling to think of ourselves as consumers because it eliminates from our imaginations the idea that we can do something together to force change. My B.S. in Advertising assures me this language and its consequences are intentional. Language is important. It determines how we see ourselves and informs how we act.
Be a Conscious Eater
If we think of ourselves as eaters, people who eat, it might change the way we shop. If our goal is not to consume but to eat, we should eat good food. What food is good? Food that nourishes us first, and food whose production has positive effects on the community and the land. We live off the land. We are eaters.
It sounds wild but our food and work choices -- what we choose to buy and where we choose to work -- added up one by one into the millions, determine our collective future. My friend and coworker Jacob Dilley says, “Any time you make a choice, you are deciding what you want to see in the world and what you don’t want to see in the world.” When we shop, we’re saying we want to see more of what we’re buying. That means we create more demand for everything from the brand to the type of food, and most importantly to the production practices used in growing or making the food.
Amber Waves of Gain
Our agricultural economy is based on scale (read: economic efficiency). Not a terrible idea on its face, but we’ve become accustomed to sacrificing a lot of important things to achieve this scale.
American farms have become bigger and less diversified.
The midpoint size of a corn field tripled from 1987 to 2007 (1).
The midpoint size of hog farms increased from 1,200 hogs to 30,000 hogs per farm over that same stretch (1).
Since 1964, the average farm has gone from producing three different products to producing an average of just one product per farm (1).
The common rebuttal of “we’re feeding a growing population” doesn’t justify these numbers. The industrialization of agriculture has well outpaced US and world population growth, which sit at 20-25% over that 20 year span. The mighty claim of “feeding the world” is vain and ignores both the consequences of industrial agriculture and the better ways to feed people.
A quick search yields swathes of data on mega-farming’s mega-problems.
According to the USDA, 80-90% of US water consumption is for agriculture (2). (Water-intensive agriculture is one reason drought has affected California so strongly.)
Pesticides, linked to cancer, autism, and lower IQ especially among those who live by sprayed fields, are widely accepted as safe and necessary (1).
Runoff from pesticides and herbicides contaminates rivers and other water sources.
Soil health is being ravaged by over-extraction of nutrients and topsoil is now being lost faster than it can be replaced across the US (3). Nearly 20% of Illinois farmland is losing more soil than it makes (4). (And soil’s not just dirt; “An acre of healthy topsoil can contain 900 pounds of earthworms, 2,400 pounds of fungi, 1,500 pounds of bacteria, 133 pounds of protozoa, and 890 pounds of arthropods and algae” (5).)
A focus on short-term productivity brings to bear major long-term costs to our health. Industrial farm production has supplanted human wellbeing as a national priority. California farms get the water instead of people. Aquifers are depleted to spray fields instead of fill cups. Degradation of land and natural resources is not a sustainable practice and we should do everything we can to oppose it.
Local Solutions to a Global Problem
The better way to feed people is through a system based on our actual needs. A nationwide or global approach, such as industrial farming's effort to "feed the world", doesn’t work because it misses the nuances of varying needs among different populations. A locally trained system is responsive to the needs of local people. A simple example is local farms working with local food banks like Sola Gratia farm who has donated nearly a third of their produce over the last 5 years (9). That’s what we need to move toward to feed the world. Global problems require local solutions. If everyone were concerned about improving their own community, the world would profoundly change.
So of course where I’m going with this is that local food is the solution. It’s the healthiest. Best for the community. It’s the best for the planet. It's the greatest (6) except that right now, it is not cheaper. Local systems are competing with economies of scale so they don’t have the bargaining leverage, mass production, or subsidies to achieve the artificially low prices most people pay at the store for their food. It’s because the system favors scale that local food is inaccessible to most people. Local food is the alternative to industrial agriculture and the more we buy it, the more accessible it will become. We can give local food the power it needs by providing the money to support it. Our local food system will only become stronger with time. We will be able to build more infrastructure for food storage, like PrairiErth’s food hub. We will be able to improve our transportation logistics by supporting more farmers and facilitating their connection. Through these efforts, we will build a local distribution network that will make local food the go-to, most accessible option right here in the middle of corn country.
Technology will not save us. The world will not fix itself. It’s up to us.
“Nature is a party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” – Wendell Berry