Navigating the New Foodism: Going Green? Be Careful You Don't See Red

As you court the green movement's call for more "local, sustainable" farming, it's important to be completely clear about some of the movement's underlying assumptions.

When Bill Weida, a retired Colorado College professor of economics, spoke before the 2011 Nebraska Environmental Action Coalition meeting in Lincoln on April 30, he repeated a piece of conventional wisdom that should tip off grocers to the underlying philosophy of today's "local and sustainable" farming movement. 

“...consumers are willing to pay more for better food," Weida told the Lincoln audience, "[but] it costs more for traditional agricultural products because it’s a closed system: farmers are doing all the production, processing, and marketing.... Right now, the land and production skills for sustainable agriculture still exist, but what’s missing is the processing and marketing.”

Weida, a former director of the Food and Water Watch's Global Resource Action Center for the Environment's Factory Farm Project, travels the country presenting his economic case that the current food system as we know it is broken and unsustainable. Because industrial farmers (that is, the larger farms that today raise the majority of our food and fiber) keep on producing even when markets are down -- unlike traditional small farms that either cut back on cropping and livestock or went bust in response to market declines. The result, Weida argues, is a system that is chasing unsustainable levels of production, a system that must return wholecloth to the traditional small-farm system in which farmers not only raise food for their communities, but they process it, deliver it and market it themselves, as well.

Weibe isn't alone in that sentiment. Locally raised is a double-edged sword that may actually work against the community grocer. Why?

Even though the local farmer community, ideally, is made up of your neighbors, at a broader national and regional level, local food and “community supported agriculture” movements have grown to become highly politicized movements which, in many cases, don’t recognize a valid role for not just "Big Agriculture," but for food-chain middlemen. Including you.

The 4,700 active farmers’ markets and 1,500 community-supported farms which USDA now tallies are widely promoted not simply as suppliers to local grocers, but as safer and healthier alternatives. For example:

“If you really want to be sure your food is healthy and safe,” writes New York Times best-selling author Dr. Joseph Mercola, “you might want to try avoiding grocery stores altogether.... According to the best-selling author of The No-Grain Diet and Take Control of Your Health, “ the long run, you’d be better off getting organic food from a farmers’ market or a CSA,” Dr. Mercola says.

Britain’s most vocal local advocate, Anthony Davison, agrees. He uses his online gateway to some 7,100 direct-sale farms to convince shoppers that traditional supermarkets are a bad buy. Grocers, he says, only offer food that is not fresh, unhealthfully processed, and wasteful of precious resources. Worse yet, it's all over-priced for the value and falsely advertised.

"More and more people are buying food fresh off the farm from producers they personally know and trust," he writes, "through CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), farmers’ markets, or other local food movements. When you can actually go visit the farm itself, you can see that it’s natural, fresh, and exactly as advertised."

“We have got so used to supermarkets saying they are cheaper, that we believe them,” he says. “It’s actually a load of crap.”

The embodiment of the community-food movement that disparages the traditional supermarket is author and advocate Mark Winne. Winne, author of Food Rebels and Closing the Food Gap tours the country, helping establish local political action groups known as local food policy committees. Those groups typically lobby local governments to support (read, subsidize) public farmers markets, community-supported agriculture programs and other direct commerce from farm to consumer.

Of course, advocating for more support to feed the hungry, whether that food originates from the traditional distribution chain or from alternative sources like farm-direct, is ultimately a good thing, something community grocers rightly support. However, much of the rhetoric of Winne's movement pitches those alternative deliveries as more virtuous, more healthful and safer than the traditional supermarket. Winne argues in his Closing the Food Gap, for instance, that inner city supermarkets have created the so-called "food deserts" where poor people can no longer easily access healthy food because they purposely abandoned areas of cities, often on racially motivated grounds.

That type of socially critical rhetoric is often accompanied by "absence labeling," implying local foods are produced without using modern technology that threatens the health of the environment and people who eat it. Thought the movement may not always expressly condemn the conventional system of food production, with almost every breath it indirectly indicts the system that forms your livelihood. By inference, the movement's language implies the conventional supply chain consists of empty promotion, without moral virtue, disconnected from the community, guilty of producing unsafe food, destructive of the world, unsustainable, polluting, and economically unfair. Aside from being nakedly untrue, such market positioning risks improving a grocer's sales of locally produced food only at the price of stigmatizing the remaining categories and depressing overall sales.

Maintaining ties with and supporting your local farmers is a critical community outreach all grocers should be involved in. However, it's important to distinguish that effort from support for a political movement that, at heart is not simply about getting more and better food into the community. It is, instead, about using food as the pretense for making fundamental changes to the economic system that made the U.S. food system (for all its flaws--and we can all agree there are some) the envy of the modern world. It is a movement populated by people, like Winne, who are products of the modern academic atmosphere that teaches youth that only the greater, more devoted, less selfish minds working above the capitalist system are capable of making fair and just decisions to ensure all are fed with "equal and just" attention to not only their nutritional needs, but also their dignity, their cultural diversity and their emotional well-being (which is how they now define "good" food). It pretends to protect poor, uneducated, marginalized people from exploitation from, as Winne calls your system, "the 800-pound gorilla of Big Agribusiness," entirely neglecting to consider how much more poorly fed the world would be were this public model of food production adopted on anything near a broad scale. The "local farmer" movement may be wearing the clothing of pastoralism, but that outward appearance is where any semblence to the pastoral system as we've always known it in the U.S. ends. It is a movement that ultimately says wealth-building through innovation and hard work is ultimately unfair, that spirited free-market competition is in the end oppressive and racist, and that the answer to a system that fails to adequately feed its citizens is that we simply don't have enough of it yet--that we only need to continue adding to the weight of government, taxes, restrictions on investment and limits on productivity.

Let's talk about this issue! Leave a comment or question below, and we'll get you a real answer or response from one of your working Nebraska farmers.



Supported by the Nebraska Corn Board

The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.

In patnership with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association

The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.

Supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau

The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.