Closing the Farm to Plate Knowledge Gap

In the battle for the hearts and minds (and pocket books) of
everyday Americans, the large corporate players in today's industrial
food system must be pleased.

Consumer advocates for sustainable, healthy food are fighting with
farmers, not because either picked a fight with the other, but because
the knowledge gap between them has grown so expansive that
misunderstandings rule the day. Credit the gap to industrial
specialization and consumer marketing, which I will return to in a
moment. Often times, these misunderstandings turn personal, further
driving apart two groups that have much to gain by working together.

How this benefits the industrial food players may not be obvious,
but by fighting amongst ourselves, we are paying less attention to the
mechanized system generating massive amounts of unhealthy,
environmentally unfriendly food and unprecedented concentrations of

For the average consumer, and likely many farmers, the "black box"
of industrial food is a mystery. There is little to no transparency,
except through increasingly common investigative journalism and
documentaries, which industrialists and their associations quickly line
up to discredit. Keeping us in the dark allows industrial food
processors and large food retailers to paint an idyllic picture of
grassy fields and red barns backed annually by an estimated $33 billion1 spent on advertising to reinforce a desired, yet highly inaccurate image of where our food comes from.

Unfortunately, they have most of us fooled, which is why it is
critical that we - consumers and farmers alike - find a shared set of
priorities to unite our voices in securing safe, healthy, tasty food
for generations to come. Let us abandon overused stereotypes and
language that divides us, and instead concentrate on educating
consumers about where the food they eat comes from, including
industrial and "alternative" food systems.

Closing the farm-to-plate knowledge gap won't be easy. With
the earliest advances in agriculture resulting in food surpluses,
people, no longer physically needed on the farm, moved to urban centers
to pursue non-agricultural careers. As the years passed and the
complexity of the food system increased, people came to rely,
exclusively in most cases today, on food processors and retailers to
provide for them. In effect, we traded knowledge for convenient, cheap

On the surface, this seems like a great tradeoff, and for most of
agriculture's history it has been. Civilizations prospered. Farmers
made a decent living. Consumers readily found fresh produce, meats, and
other ingredients to prepare wholesome, nutritious, tasty meals. But
things started to change. Industrialization intensified. Corporate
consolidation accelerated. Seeds became intellectual property
(protected by patents). High-paid lobbyists proliferated. Politicians
bowed. And, most important, people stopped paying attention.

Take a snap shot of today's food system. Study the details. What you
find are a number of increasingly dramatic side effects that most
people are not aware of, most of which are getting worse.

  • Today's average farmer makes about 55 percent less money for the
    food they grow than they did 50 years ago. According to the USDA,
    farmers' share of consumer food expenditures dropped from about $0.40
    per dollar in 1950 to around $0.19 in 2006. The balance of consumer
    expenditures, termed the Marketing Bill, goes to "value-add" (i.e.,
    industrial food companies).
  • While farmers' financial situations have deteriorated, food manufacturers' fortunes have skyrocketed to the tune of $3.1 trillion in revenues per year with above average profit margins. Judging by the fact
    that the Top 50 Food Processors and Top 50 Supermarket & Grocery
    Chains all have over $1.0 billion in annual sales, with Wal-Mart
    topping the list at nearly $100 billion, increasing concentrations of
    power are clear.
  • One billion people are obese, thanks in part to value-add
    convenience foods (e.g., fast food, prepared meals, snacks, sodas),
    massive advertising campaigns, and time-constrained lifestyles (e.g.,
    two income households with kids). This, while another one billion
    people go hungry, bypassed because they are unable to provide profit
    margins required by industrial food.
  • According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, obesity (one of
    the "western diseases" attributed to diet) accounted for $75 billion in extra medical costs in 2003. The Journal of the American Medical Association
    attributed some 112,000 premature deaths in 2000 to obesity. These
    additional health care costs, half of which are paid for by taxpayers,
    have all but erased the cost-of-living savings claimed by the makers of
    cheap, convenient food. And it's going to get worse before it gets
  • Analysis by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization
    reports that agriculture contributes 14% of human-released greenhouse
    gases each year, through methane from livestock and rice paddies,
    nitrous oxide from fertilizers, and fossil fuel use during production.
    In an era where controlling carbon emissions is critical, the
    industrialized food system must change or give up market share to
    environmentally friendly alternatives.

We have turned our food over to a system that doesn't have our best
interests in mind, despite what billions of dollars of advertising tell
us. Power is concentrated, not by farms or consumers, but by
multi-national corporations. Increasing complexity rules the day,
making it harder for even those in industry to keep food safe. And the
halls of Congress are jammed with food system lobbyists fighting for
more power, or, at a minimum, maintaining the status quo.

It's up to us - farmers and consumers - to take back control of the
food we eat. At a minimum, we need to fight for the checks and balances
needed to ensure safe, affordable, and environmentally-friendly food
for generations to come. It won't be easy given the stacked deck
industry is playing with. But by thoughtfully considering each other's
perspectives, while separating ourselves from the complex,
concentrated, industrial food system, we will find the common ground
necessary to drive the change we seek.

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