Few pay attention to where our food is grown

9/20/2006

By Doyce Gunter
Guest Columnist

Most of us in the United States take food for granted. We hear of hungry people, but most of us do not know truly hungry people unless we work with them in some way.  

Food is plentiful in the United States and relatively cheap when we consider the percentage of our income we spend for food. Brian Halweil in WorldArk magazine states, “The typical supermarket contains no fewer than 30,000 items.” We can usually get anything we want when we want it by simply running to the supermarket.

But how many of us know where this food is grown and who is growing it? Halweil points out, “About half of those items are produced by 10 multinational food and beverage companies. One hundred thirty-eight people — 117 men and 21 women — form the boards of directors of those 10 companies... Rather than coming to us from thousands of different farmers producing different local varieties, these products have been globally standardized and selected for maximum profit by just a few powerful executives.”   

What is most frightening about this fact is that if the trend continues our food supply could soon be controlled by a food cartel the way our oil supplies are now. If this happens, our food prices will skyrocket like gasoline has.  

Halweil continues, “Far-flung food has now become the norm. Apples in Des Moines supermarkets come from China, even though there are apple orchards in Iowa; potatoes in Lima’s supermarkets come from the United States, even though Peru boasts the most varieties of potatoes.” This long-distance food system offers us “any food, anytime, anywhere.”  

What about the quality of our food? I will hardly eat a tomato from the supermarket during the off-season, though I love tomatoes. The off-season tomato that is shipped in has no flavor to it. Other problems besides flavor show up in the long-distance food.

“Products enduring long-distance transport and long-term storage depend on preservatives and additives, and encounter all sorts of opportunities for contamination on their journey from farm to plate,” Halweil writes. 

Problems also include transportation costs, damage to the market for local growers and the safety of our food supply in this day of terrorism. This is to say nothing of health problems that we face in the United States, such as obesity and diabetes, which may be partly caused by the quality of our food. What we eat has lost some of its nutritional value through the long process of packing and shipping. It does not satisfy our hunger as easily, so we eat more. Many pre-packaged foods also contain sugar to make them more tasty, even when they are not considered sweet foods.  

Those who suffer most from this are the poor and the indigenous communities. “The nutritional fallout from the loss of local food diversity has landed heavily on indigenous (and poor) populations...The Oodham Indians of the American Southwest suffer from one of the highest recorded rates of adult-onset diabetes in the world. But it has been found that many of the native, locally available foods that their ancestors enjoyed are high in fiber, low in cholesterol and saturated fat, and generally help reduce the incidence of diabetes,” the article states. 

It has been found recently that Mississippi has a higher level of obesity and a higher level of poverty than any other state in the U.S. These two actually go together because the cheaper foods are more likely to have more fat content and sugar, which is added to give them a better flavor.  

Seeking change

To change anything about this situation will take changing the way we do agriculture. “Farmers who raise just one or two crops will have a hard time feeding their neighbors. And communities that lose their butchers, bakers, ranchers and farmers will have a hard time regaining any level of self-sufficiency,”  Halweil states. 

But efforts to change are being made by several companies. “In New York, the largest supermarket chain on Long Island, King Kullen, is committed to buying only fruits and vegetables grown on Long Island during the local growing season,” the article states. In the Southwestern states, Bon Appetit Management Co. has started an “Eat Local Challenge” for its “190 cafes, restaurants and university eateries (in which) they serve at least one meal made only with food grown within a 150-mile radius” of where it is served. The company’s director of communications says, “Once you taste the difference in the food, it’s very hard to go back” to the long-distance food.  

Many other local efforts are taking place around the world to bring local food of higher quality to the market place so people will have access to more nutritious food, and the farmers will receive a bigger share of our food dollar. One such group is the Association of Family Farms that is being formed in mid-America and includes many who live in Mississippi. The conference Rural Life Committee is kept abreast of the work of the Association of Family Farms by Fred Stokes, an active member of our committee, who is also involved in the formation of this marketing group.  

One of the goals of the Rural Life Ministries Committee is to help “model rural communities” develop across Mississippi. Part, perhaps the heart, of the development of such communities would be to bring the farmer and the customer closer together. This will fit in nicely with the trends that we see developing across the nation. In future articles we may do some imaginative thinking on what could take place as a result of development of such rural communities in Mississippi.  

We fully agree with Halweil in his observation that “while the idea of complete food self-sufficiency may be impractical for rich and poor nations alike, greater self-sufficiency can buffer nations against the whims of international markets. To the extent that food production and distribution are relocated in the community under local ownership, more money will circulate in the local community to generate more jobs and income.”  

Such developments could help overcome the loss felt when small, rural industries relocate to other countries to get cheaper labor. It could also take a step toward stopping the loss of farms due to bankruptcy. It is our feeling that there may be a better day for rural America just over the horizon.

 

Some material for this article was obtain with permission from “Food Democracy” by Brian Halweil in  the January/February 2006 issue of “WorldArk,” which is published by Heifer International (©2005 Heifer International).