What’s Wrong With Our Food System?

Drying 10 Pounds of Michigan Blueberries for Freezing

There is a strong argument nothing is wrong with our food system.

There is a strong argument everything is wrong with our food system.

To talk about a “food system” at all presumes a lot that may or may not be true.

It’s no secret large corporations increasingly control food production, distribution and marketing. Scalability is a key issue with providing nourishment for billions of people. The hand of large land owners, chemical companies, seed genetics companies, processors, banks, equipment manufacturers and consumer outlets runs throughout each household’s food ecology. Households have a food ecology even if they don’t speak of it using such fancy words. What appears at a meal is influenced at every point in the distribution chain by large corporations.

It’s also no secret farmers, especially small-scale farmers don’t earn a lot of money for their long hours each season. Neither do equipment manufacturing workers, seasonal farm help, truck drivers, grocery store workers, or restaurant workers. Whether one is a contractor for a large international meat-producing corporation or produces heirloom hogs for a meat locker, at the end of the day a diverse and ever changing personal economic structure is needed to ensure viability this year and in the near-term future. People struggle to make a living by farming alone.

At the same time, grocery stores are packed with food and if there remain some food deserts without one, enough food is produced in the United States to feed everyone. I met an executive from a large container manufacturing company when I worked in the Chicago Loop. He said the issue wasn’t having enough food, it was preserving and distributing what we already produce. That remains true, his statement representing another large corporation wanting a piece of the food supply action.

The deck is stacked against young farmers who want to produce food outside the mainstream. I’m thinking of friends that operate Community Supported Agriculture projects or grow specialty crops. Producing meat and vegetables for the local market has been a staple in society at least since medieval times. When there are a lack of well-paying jobs, or capital, if people have access to a piece of land for a season, attractive fruit and vegetables can be produced and sold at a margin that looks better because labor cost is removed from the calculus.

It goes without saying a farmer will work 60 or more hours a week, sometimes turning $100,000 per year in revenue derived from diverse sources (produce, livestock, grazing and retail sales) and living on a fraction of that. Land ownership? Only a small percentage of young farmers can afford to own land.

Consumers can afford a hodge-podgey food system with diverse sourcing, abundant supply, wide variety, and absence of much concern for how food arrived at our table. If corporations own equity in land, equipment and patented seed genetics, it’s hard to see that on our 9-inch dinner plate.

What matters more in this discussion is not whether a food system is good or bad, but whether that is even a thing. If each household develops its own food ecology, including best practices regarding water use, soil conservation, seed genetics and other resource use, that’s not good enough. If a food system exists, what it requires is scalability and that’s where corporations can and likely should play a role. Not evil corporations designed for extraction of resources and cash, but people joined together with common purpose regarding nourishing a growing population.

Asserting there is or isn’t a problem with our food system is itself a problem. It is much more fluid and undefined than that. Like vegetable farmers we need to accept each season for what it teaches us, hoping we can sustain ourselves for another season.

Additional Reading

Last Call for a Food Systems Revolution by Pallab Helder.

To Revive Rural America, We Must Fix Our Broken Food System by Austin Frerick.

World Hunger is on the Rise by Timothy A. Wise.

Twitter thread by Dr. Sarah Taber.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

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