The Industrialization of Agriculture and the True Cost of Cheap Food

 

This is a research paper I wrote for my 2013 English class.  Thought I’d share it.

The Industrialization of Agriculture and the True Cost of Cheap Food

Suppose you have read about the plight of animals raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (“CAFOs” a/k/a “Factory Farms”) or maybe you have decided you want to feed your family food grown locally because you have heard that it is more nutritious and helps the local economy.  So on Saturday, you pack up your family, put a cooler and ice packs in your trunk and head to your local farmer’s market.  Upon arrival, you see individuals in varying attire standing behind tables some with vegetables enticingly arranged, others with photographs or drawings of pastoral settings featuring cows, pigs and chickens with numerous coolers stacked close by.

As you take a closer look, however, the selection of vegetables is minimal compared to the grocery store you normally shop at and once you see the prices for the meat and vegetables you experience sticker shock.  The prices quoted for comparable cuts of meat at the farmer’s market were in some instances twice what you pay on a daily basis in a grocery store.  The fruit and vegetable selections were minimal compared to what you are be accustomed to seeing at the grocery store and most are more expensive at a farmer’s market.

We live in an age of cheap and fast food. As indicated in the bar chart below, individuals living in poor countries spend considerably more than Americans on food.  Americans spend less on food than any other country in the world, (Battistoni) but that was not always the case.  Back in 1955, families of three or more persons spent about one third of their after-tax income on food. (Willis)

 

In the 1970s, food prices were rising and the nation’s middle class was growing.  Nixon’s then secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, who envisioned a hyper-efficient, centralized food system, one that could profitably and cheaply “feed the world” by manipulating (or “adding value to”) mountains of Midwestern corn and soy, inherited the agricultural subsidy program which was originally designed to help stabilize food supply and farmers’ incomes after the great depression into a support mechanism for the industrial production of corn and soy.  (Philpott)

Butz’s policy of “get big or get out” — made possible by advancements in industrial food production, including technological developments and an abundance of cheap fossil fuels used to make fertilizer and pesticides — encouraged the consolidation of small farmers’ plots into gigantic holdings and led to the rise of agribusiness in place of the family farm. (Battistoni)

The amount of corn produced each year in America has tripled since 1970, from 4 billion bushels then to more than 12 billion today. (Battistoni)  More than one-third of our corn crop is used to feed livestock. Another 13 percent is exported, much of it to feed livestock as well. Another 40 percent is used to produce ethanol. The remainder goes toward food and beverage production. (Carter)

Because of all of the corn production in the United States, it is usually less expensive for an individual to consume calories from processed food than whole foods and it is possible for CAFOs to raise animals less expensively than the small farmers that attend farmer’s markets.  The “sticker shock” that many people experience when they look at purchasing locally-grown or organic food is not uncommon.  Organic and more importantly, local food is more expensive to produce than conventionally-grown food.  A little known fact is that our tax dollars subsidize production of corn and other commodity crops.  The current Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (commonly known as the “farm bill”) gives some $4.9 billion a year in automatic payments to growers of commodity crops. (The Editors, Scientific American)  These commodity crops (mainly corn and soy) are used to feed the animals raised in CAFOs.  Corn and soy make animals grow fast, especially if they are kept in a confined environment.

In addition to spending less on food than other countries, by most estimates, a quarter to half of all food produced in the United States goes uneaten — left in fields, spoiled in transport, thrown out at the grocery store, scraped into the garbage or forgotten until it spoils. (Parker-Pope)

The purpose of this paper is to explore my theory that if people had to pay more for food, would they value it more?  Has industrial agriculture and its cheap food contributed to our throw-away society? Finally has this advent of cheap food cause people to lose their connection with food?

First, a bit of history: I am a small farmer and am one of those individuals that greet consumers at the farmer’s market that I attend every Saturday in Charlotte, North Carolina.  I will be the first to tell you that I am a bit embarrassed at the prices that I charge for the food that I produce, but I will also tell you that I cannot raise or grow the quality product that I sell and offer it for less.  At the farmer’s market that I attend, you will not see $1.00 per pound chicken and you can expect to pay at least $6.00 a pound for ground beef.  There is no cheap food to be had at this farmer’s market.

One may ask if farmer’s markets are only for affluent people.  On the surface it may seem so. But why is it that other countries spend so much more on food?  Could it be that food is more important to them or that they have a relationship with their food?  Should we have a relationship with our food or is it something that should be consumed on the fly off a Styrofoam tray?  One of the problems with this loss of connection to food that is so prevalent in our society is that it is coupled with loss of life skills like something as simple as cooking a meal from scratch or from whole ingredients.

Patience Gray writes in her book, Honey from a Weed, “Good cooking is born out in communities where the supply of food is conditioned by the seasons … Once we lose touch with the spendthrift aspect of nature’s provisions epitomized in the raising of a crop, we are in danger of losing touch with life itself.” (Gray)

According to Michael Pollan, “we have a system where wealthy farmers feed the poor crap and poor farmers feed the wealthy high-quality food.” (Miller)  Our food system is essentially broken.  With all of the food being produced in the United States, people still go hungry and on the flip side, obesity and obesity-related illnesses have steadily increased.

Claude Fischler, a French sociologist, believes that Americans can fight both obesity and food insecurity by being more like the French.  In surveys, Fischler has found no single time of day (or night) when Americans predictably sit together and eat. By contrast, 54 percent of the French dine at 12:30 each day. Only 9.5 percent of the French are obese. (Miller)  Fischer also believes “what happened with food in the West is that food became disenchanted.  Americans grab food without thinking, without ritual, there is a loss of meaning.  When food is commodified and processed, it retreats into a black box. We are what we eat and if we don’t know what we eat …” (Braun)

In his wonderful book, American Wasteland, Jonathan Bloom writes: “How we reached the point where most people waste more than their body weight — or at least the average American body-weight — each year in food is a complicated tale.  In short, Americans’ gradual shift from a rural, farming life to an urban, nonagricultural one removed us from the sources of our food.” (Bloom xii)

Many children in America grow up thinking food comes on Styrofoam trays or in a box that they purchase at Wal-Mart.  In reality, food is precious and should be treated as such. Perhaps the industrialization of our food supply was not such a great idea as it has disconnected too many people from their food.  If there was not so much cheap food available and people were forced to pay more for their food perhaps they would cook and eat it with care. Perhaps obesity and obesity-related diseases would not be so prevalent if cheap food were not so readily available.

If food production, even if only a portion of food production, was put back in the hands of small farmers and if this ludicrous availability of cheap, out-of-season food were not so readily available, would it not force consumers to think even just a little bit more about what they put in their mouths?  If more families were to take the time to cook their meals and sit down as a family to consume it, would food have more value?  Are Americans simply too consumed with their iPhones, iPads, realty television shows, computer games, etc. to even care anymore?  Has industrial agriculture damaged us as a society?  If Americans had to pay more than $1.00 for a pound of chicken, would they be more inclined to make sure they consumed or used every last bit of the carcass?

While at the Farmer’s Market, I speak to people a lot about the true cost of food.  Some people get it but many do not.  Once I tell them that I only have whole chickens (not chicken breasts or chicken wings), many will walk away in search of a farmer that offers chicken pieces.  I am amazed at how many people have never had to cut up a whole chicken.  I explain to them that the best value is in a whole bird: you can buy a whole bird for $4.00 or $5.00 a pound.  Once you get into the pieces, the price often doubles.  There is a lot you can do with a whole bird and you can sometimes get as many as three meals out of a whole bird.  That is just too much for some people to handle.

It saddens me to think of the damage that is being done to our health and heritage by industrialized agriculture.  This paper does not even touch on the damage being done to the environment by industrialized agriculture.  The light at the end of the tunnel for this small farmer comes from new customers that visit my booth every week looking for real food.  Some have become disenchanted by the industrialized food system, some are looking for better health, some are just curious; it is not matter why they come to me, I am just glad they are there.

Works Consulted

 

Battistoni, Alyssa. Mother Jones. 1 February 2012. <http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2012/01/america-food-spending-less>.

Bloom, Jonathan. American Wasteland, How America Throws Away Nearly Half Of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2010. Print.

Braun, Ashley. “Grist.” 16 November 2010. Americans need to stop multitasking while eating alone, argues French sociologist Claude Fischler . <http://grist.org/article/2010-11-15-americans-stop-multitasking-eating-alone-french-claude-fischler/>.

Carter, Colin A. and Miller, Henry I. The New York Times. 30 July 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/31/opinion/corn-for-food-not-fuel.html?_r=0>.

Gray, Patience. Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

Miller, Lisa. “Newsweek Magazine.” 22 November 2010. Divided we Eat. <http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2010/11/22/what-food-says-about-class-in-america.html>.

Parker-Pope, Tara. The New York Times. 1 November 2010. <http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/01/from-farm-to-fridge-to-garbage-can/>.

Philpott, Tom. Grist. 8 February 2008. <http://grist.org/food/the-butz-stops-here/>.

The Editors, Scientific American. Scientific American. 19 April 2012. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=fresh-fruit-hold-the-insulin>.

Willis, Jessie. How We Measure Poverty. February 2000. <http://www.ocpp.org/poverty/how/>.