Sound Consumer | March 2005
by Cameron Woodworth
What makes our food system vulnerable and why small, local farms are the solution.
- Decentralized food systems mean food security
- Consolidation weakens food security
- Genetic engineering: Frankenfish and pharmcrops
- Supporting local farms
- If you’d like to learn or do more
(March 2005) — Food security has become a popular buzz phrase in recent years. The issue became prominent in the 1970s when international officials began working to ensure that the world’s people all would be fed. By 1986, the World Bank defined food security as the “access of all people at all times to enough food for an active and healthy life.”
To those of us in the sustainable food movement, the term has come to encompass a host of sustainability issues as well. True food security means having access to pure foods that are grown in ways to ensure optimal health, but it also entails protecting our environment so it can grow quality foods.
The list of problems with American agriculture threatening food security certainly is long. Our nation’s farmland is burdened with pesticides and toxic fertilizers. Monolithic agricultural practices are reducing biodiversity and eroding topsoil.
Corporate consolidation in the food industry is driving family farms out of business, allowing an increasingly smaller number of companies to jockey for position and power over control of the seed supply, production and distribution of food. And biotech corporations are creating genetically engineered crops that imperil traditional, organic foods and may lead to unwanted pharmaceutical drugs and industrial chemicals in our food.
No doubt we face some difficult challenges, but our collective efforts make a significant difference. Organic foods have never been more popular. And the “eat local” movement is gaining momentum.
The PCC community has become an important part of the growing network of folks across the country that are eating and behaving in ways that help make our food supply more secure. By purchasing organically and locally grown and produced foods, consumers are not only choosing some of the best possible foods for you and your loved ones; they’re also helping to promote sustainability and food security in the Puget Sound region, the United States and, indeed, the world.
“Organic is great for the environment and the health of workers and I’m all for it,” says Corby Kummer, author of “The Pleasures of Slow Food” and food columnist for The Atlantic Monthly. “But the first priority is buying local, supporting economies around you, and trying to keep local farms resisting industrialized farming and real estate pressures.”
Decentralized food systems mean food security
As far back as 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt warned, “a nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.” But it’s a warning that giant agribusinesses have not taken to heart. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the country has lost one-third of its topsoil due to industrial agriculture. The National Center for Appropriate Technology figures that an average of 7 tons of topsoil per acre is lost each year in the United States. Globally, nearly 40 percent of the world’s agricultural land is seriously degraded.
“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all,” says noted author and environmentalist Wendell Berry. “It is the healer and restorer and resurrector by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
Small organic farms do a much better job at protecting topsoil than large agribusinesses. Organic farming tends to use such techniques as crop rotation and conservation tillage (i.e. no-till and mulch-till) that build nutrient-rich soil that’s much less susceptible to erosion. But the organic food market, while growing rapidly, remains a small part of the U.S. agricultural system. We need to continue to support small, local organic farms, and encourage our friends and family to do so as well, if we want to help protect our soil.
Industrial agriculture also means heavy applications of pesticides that harm or kill wildlife, pollute our water and cause other environmental harms. Biodiversity is compromised as agribusinesses whittle down the varieties of tomatoes, onions and other fruits and vegetables to a precious few. And as The Seattle Times reported in its famous 1997 series, Fear in the Fields, fertilizers laden with industrial wastes including heavy metals and other dangerous substances are being spread on farms across the country.
Small-scale, local organic farmers make a difference on all of these issues. Even when not organic, locally grown food tends to be produced with fewer chemicals such as pesticides, fertilizers and preservatives. Small family farms employ a less chemically intensive approach to agriculture than large agribusinesses. And small organic farms tend to plant a greater variety of produce, which is beneficial not only to the soil and wildlife but for consumers as well.
Consolidation weakens food security
Fifty years ago, shortly after World War II, the government and the food industry adopted the belief that farms should produce the maximum amount of food at the least possible cost. The result is a smaller number of larger farms that produce a decreasing variety of crops. The implications for our food security are stark, according to Jennifer Wilkins, a food and society policy fellow at Cornell University.
From 1993 to 2003, she notes, the United States lost 33,000 farms with annual sales of less than $100,000. Large farms with sales of $500,000 or more per year make up only 3 percent of all farms, but use 20 percent of U.S. farmland and represent 62 percent of all sales. Moreover, the 10 largest food companies are responsible for more than half of all food on supermarket shelves. “Imagine,” she writes in a New York Times op-ed piece, “what might happen to our food supply if a widespread contamination by a food-borne disease, accidental or intentional, were to strike even one of those mega farms or food companies.”
Wilkins also notes that food processors increasingly are turning to foreign countries for cheaper food than what American farmers can provide. The combination of industrial agriculture and cheap food imports “compromises America’s ability to feed itself,” she says, and makes our food security more vulnerable to interruptions in supply and contamination, intentional or not. Analysts now project that, for the first time in 50 years, the United States may import more food than it exports in 2005.
Her answer — and PCC’s — is to promote community-based food systems and policies that support small, local farmers and a diversity of food products. Many Americans are getting the message. The number of farmers markets nationwide, for example, increased from 1,700 in 1994 to 3,100 in 2002.
Genetic engineering: Frankenfish and pharmcrops
One of the most immediate threats to our food security is the rise of genetically engineered (GE) crops. From Frankenfish that grow four times faster than normal, to animals and plants designed to produce pharmaceutical drugs and industrial chemicals, biotech engineers are tinkering with the fundamental building blocks of life.
Today, two-thirds of the processed foods on supermarket shelves have been genetically engineered or contain genetically engineered ingredients. Eighty-five percent of the soybeans grown in the United States today are engineered to tolerate heavy doses of glyphosate herbicides (such as Roundup), which are acutely toxic to animals, including humans.1
Furthermore, in more than 8,200 field trials, the Roundup Ready seeds produced fewer bushels of soybeans than similar, traditional varieties.2 As much as 45 percent of the corn grown in the United States is engineered to express a pesticide for every cell in the plant. GE corn is officially listed with the Environmental Protection Agency as a “biopesticide.”
But genetic engineers are also experimenting with a dizzying array of genetically altered life forms, from genetically engineered trees and lawn grass, to fish that glow in the dark and pre-plucked chickens that grow without feathers. Perhaps of biggest concern are crops engineered to produce pharmaceutical drugs and industrial chemicals, now being grown in test plots at undisclosed locations around the country.
Already, the pollen from nearby genetically engineered crops has contaminated many organic farms. Researchers have discovered that some organic foods contain small amounts of genetically modified organisms.
“We never really thought all this through,” said Charles Hurburgh, director of the Iowa Grain Quality Initiative and an Iowa State University professor. “Who would have known 10 years ago that this would have been an issue? There was no reason for this to be on the radar screen at the time.”
“Monsanto and other proponents of biotechnology continually tell the public that genetic engineering is necessary if the world’s food supply is to keep up with population growth,” says John Robbins, founder of EarthSave and author of “The Food Revolution.” “But even with nearly 100 million acres planted, their products have yet to do a thing to reverse the spread of hunger. There is no more food available for the world’s less fortunate. In fact, most of the fields (are) growing transgenic soybeans and corn that are destined for livestock feed.”
At its root, biotech is about ownership of seeds and life forms, and the goal nothing less than increased consolidation and control of the world’s seed supply. Three biotech companies (Monsanto, Pioneer and Novartis) now control 20 percent of the seed supply globally. Ten firms account for 31 percent of world seed sales. Such control in the hands of a few companies is risky for food security and damaging for small-scale farmers.
Supporting local farms
The idea of buying local is simple: buy food from as close to your home as possible. In 2003, Rich Pirog of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found that the average meal in the United States travels 1,500 miles before it reaches your plate. Locally grown food is fresher, contains more nutrients and requires significantly less energy than food that is transported across such vast distances. Food that travels across the country often must be treated with preservatives to ensure a long shelf life.
Peter Rossett, former executive director of Food First, says that small farms, contrary to stereotypes, actually produce more per acre than monoculture farms — from 200 to 1,000 percent more.
“Large farms must plant monocultures because they are easiest to manage with heavy machinery. But monocultures make inefficient use of space. Small farmers often intercrop, using the empty space between rows (which would otherwise produce weeds) to combine or rotate crops and livestock, with manure replenishing soil fertility. Instead of ‘yield,’ which refers to one crop, we should include everything the farm produces — crops, livestock, fruit, fish — when we measure their productivity.”
One reason to support small-scale local farmers is simply to protect agricultural wisdom. Jim Scharplaz raises cattle in Ottawa County, Kansas, and is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle. He says, “the knowledge required to grow the best particular plants in particular places, the valuable craft required to be a good farmer, is being lost. And the farmer is increasingly dependent on an industrial food system controlled by a very few, very large corporations.”
“Farmers are the foundation of civilization,” he adds. “They are as essential to its stability as they were when agriculture began 10,000 years ago. New agricultural technologies must be judged: Is their purpose the industrialization and homogenization of farming, or the benefit of humanity?”
1. Studies on glyphosate (Roundup) have found adverse effects in all standard categories of laboratory toxicology testing, including salivary gland lesions, inflamed stomach linings, genetic damage in human blood cells, reduced sperm counts and abnormal sperm, increased frequency of liver tumors and thyroid cancer, increased risk of miscarriages, premature birth, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Glyphosate also reduces populations of beneficial insects, birds and small mammals by destroying habitat, increases plants’ susceptibility to disease, and reduces the growth of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Journal of Pesticide Reform, fall 1998, Vol. 18, No. 3.
2. Dr. Charles Benbrook, former executive director of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture.