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Problem: Local Food Resources


(contributed by Sarah Trone Garriott)

In her book Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, Barbara Kingsolver notes that “we’re a nation with an eating disorder” (18). In the United States and around the world, food production has become highly industrialized, resulting in an environmental, economic, and nutritional crisis. Food production and consumption may very well be the most significant issue facing our world. The effects conventional food culture can be witnessed in the mounting threat of climate change, the poverty and desolation of farming communities, and a dramatic increase obesity, heart disease and diabetes. It is possible to change the destructive agricultural trends of the last fifty years. However, it is up to the consumer to turn the tide. Local, sustainable agriculture makes it possible to reduce the use of fossil fuels, strengthen the local economy, and improve the quality and taste of each bite. In this resource you will find a discussion of the key food issues, suggestions for changes that you can make that will have real impact on the problem, and resources for further information.

The Problem Today’s meal is marinated in petroleum products. U.S. citizens consume about “400 gallons of oil a year per citizen—about 17 percent of our nation’s energy use—for agriculture” (Kingsolver, 5). Machines are responsible for a portion of this amount, but much oil is also used in the production of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. According to Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy, “it takes half a gallon of oil to produce a bushel of Midwest hybrid corn; a quarter of it is used to make fertilizer, 35 percent to power the farm machinery, 7 percent to irrigate the field, and the rest to make pesticides, to dry grain, and to perform other tasks of industrialized farming” (64). Yet the real fuel usage begins after the harvest leaves the farm. Processing, packaging, and distributing the food around the nation and the world consumes four times again as much energy (McKibben, 64). Transportation is the largest drain, with each item on the typical U.S. dinner plate traveling 1,500 miles (Kingsolver, 5). According to this equation, “growing and distributing a pound of frozen peas required ten times as much energy as the peas contained” (McKibben, 65). Bio-fuel is not an answer to this problem. Growing demand for bio-fuels have raised the prices on corn and soy, enticing many farmers to switch to these cash crops. Recent food protests in Latin America, Africa, and Asia signal the direct affect of these rising prices on basic food products for the majority of the world’s poor.

Food did not always travel this far to get to your plate. As agriculture shifted from family farms to big business, food production became consolidated in the hands of a few large companies. Now, there are a handful of corporations that raise the bulk of a crop in a centralized location, instead of many local farmers. McKibben offers the following statistics:

  • Cargill, Inc., and Archer Daniels Midland together control over 70 percent of grain production (53).
  • Only four companies slaughter 81 percent of American Beef. Meanwhile, eighty-nine percent of American chickens are produced under contract to big companies, usually in broiler houses up to five hundred feet long holding thirty thousand or more birds (53).
  • Four multinational companies control over 70 percent of fluid milk sales in the United States, and one Ohio “farm” produces 3 billion eggs per year (53).
  • At present, five companies control 75 percent of the global vegetable seed market. As a former Monsanto Seed executive boasted, “what you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it’s really a consolidation of the entire food chain. (53).

As corporations have taken control of agriculture, the independent family farm has all but disappeared. As McKibben notes, this shift has a direct economic impact on the farmer and the life of rural communities:

  • Since the end of WWII, America has lost a farm about every half hour (54).
  • A farmer’s profit margin dropped from 35 percent in 1950 to nine percent today (54).
  • It is an economic reality that Americans “obligingly give 85 cents of our every food dollar...to the processors, marketers, and transporters” (13).
  • If you buy a loaf of supermarket bread, the farmer gets 6 cents of each $1 you spend (91).
  • Poverty rates are now higher in vast stretches of the “heartland” than in inner cities. The specialization and consolidation are now so intense that sociologists now designate many parts of rural America “food deserts,” dependent on convenience stores and without access to fresh produce (58).
  • Now that food must travel farther, families who had previously farmed now become truck drivers. Now, “40 percent of truck traffic comes from the shuttling of food over long distances” (65).

Industrial agriculture works on a “bigger is better” model, consolidating production in one place, specializing in one product, and always working towards greater yields. However, this model has many significant negative side effects. When a large number of livestock are consolidated in one place, manure becomes a significant problem rather than a helpful fertilizer. As McKibben notes, “one farm in Utah, with 1.5 million porkers, has a sewage problem larger than the city of Los Angeles” (60). Disposal of these animal wastes becomes a threat to water, air and soil quality. Centralized food production also puts the food supply at risk. Resigning as Secretary of Health and Human Services in 2004, Tommy Thompson said, “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do” (McKibben, 61). Toxins could easily be introduced to one agribusiness operation, poisoning a large segment of the population.

It is not only threats from the outside that put the food supply in jeopardy. Outbreaks of E Coli and Botulism in recent years have been traced to large-scale food producers. With a handful of people overseeing thousands of animals or hundreds acres, mistakes are easy to make. Disease and contamination are also more likely when crops or livestock are concentrated in one area. Because food is transported far and wide, contamination affects a very wide spectrum of the population. Nowhere is this clearer than with recalls of contaminated beef. The beef from one cow is distributed over the area of several states, making tracking and containment a difficult and time consuming effort.


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