Farm to Fork

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Family farm

The growing distance from "farm to fork" is usually talked about in terms of food miles: the distance food travels to arrive on one's plate. But the energy expended in transporting lettuce from California to New York, while easy to understand, does not get to either the environmental or the economic heart of the matter.

The distance from farm to fork that sustainable agriculture advocates and "locavores"of various stripes talk about — and seek to reduce — reflects much more than travel miles. Closing the gap means ensuring, among other things:

The farther our food travels, the less control we have over that food—how it was raised, how the land was treated, what sort of living the farmer made.

In other words, what happens between the farm and your fork is what links us to to the land, to each other, and to a shared idea of what American agriculture stands for. Across this one "in between" stretches an every-day test of what we value.

Price Spread: Farmgate to Retail

Food shoppingThe farm share of food dollars has declined continuously since the USDA started tracking these figures in 1950 — from 44% to 19%. This trend holds globally: according to the United Nations, the gap between world market prices (charged by traders) and domestic prices (paid to farmers) doubled between 1974 and 1994. Today, over 90% of U.S. farmers are forced to rely on off-farm income. In 1930 that number was 30%, in 1970, 54%. Price spreads are spreading, and farming is becoming less profitable for farmers as a result.

Yet consumers are not seeing lower prices at the grocery store. Because industrial food and farming is so consolidated, agribusiness conglomerates like Cargill, Monsanto, and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) set prices at both ends of the food chain, cheating farmers and consumers alike.

Farmers & ranchers receive 20 cents of every dollar spent on food.

When a few big buyers have such a tight hold over the market, farmers have no option but to follow their instructions – or lose their sales. In many cases, farmers not only surrender the right to make basic decisions about how their farm is run, they do not even own their own livestock and produce. They simply perform the “service” of rearing livestock and growing crops for agribusiness giants that own the assets and dictate the terms of service – and the price.

These corporations take home tens of billions of dollars in profits each year, further consolidating their control over what happens from farm to fork.

Food Safety Risks

Poultry farmMost of our meat supply is controlled by four — soon to be three — companies: Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield, and JBS (which is vying for a Smithfield takeover). Cargill and two other companies process more than 70% of U.S. soybeans. And most of our corn — a staple in livestock feed and present in virtually all processed food — is grown from seed developed by one of two companies.

When so few companies control so much of what happens between farm and fork, food safety and consumer choice are compromised.

  • Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks become more likely because of the factory conditions instituted as agribusiness conglomerates seek to leverage economies of scale, and because when an outbreak does happen, it gets rapidly disbursed as centralized processing plants act like hubs in the global food system.
  • If agribusiness conglomerates choose to raise meat using hormones and antibiotics, or grow corn from genetically-modified seed, then that is what's available to the majority of consumers who don't have access to a local or regional food system.

Corporate Welfare

The risks of farming (weather, blights, market volatility) and the vital need for a stable food supply mean that farmers need a strong safety net. But supporting farmers as they produce food and steward our natural resources is not the same as subsidizing consistently profitable billion-dollar corporations. We call the latter corporate welfare.

According to the Cato Institute's, Archer Daniels Midland: A Case Study in Corporate Welfare:

“The Archer Daniels Midland Corporation (ADM) has been the most prominent recipient of corporate welfare in recent U.S. history… ADM has cost the American economy billions of dollars since 1980 and has indirectly cost Americans tens of billions of dollars in higher prices and higher taxes over that same period. At least 43% of ADM's annual profits are from products heavily subsidized or protected by the American government. Moreover, every $1 of profits earned by ADM's corn sweetener operation costs consumers $10, and every $1 of profits earned by its ethanol operation costs taxpayers $30.”

Every $1 of profits earned by ADM's corn sweetener operation costs consumers $10, and every $1 of profits earned by its ethanol operation costs taxpayers $30 - Cato Institute

ADM’s CEO took home over $2 million just in bonus payments in 2009. Meanwhile, family farms failed and more people than ever before were unable to buy food as the ranks of the world's hungry passed one billion for the first time.

Siphoning public funds into the hands of a fortunate few is made possible by a set of misguided national policies and the unprecedented consolidation of the agribusiness sector. If we are to reduce the distance between farm and fork — and promote a measure of economic justice and environmental sustainability — corporate control over food and agriculture must be confronted directly, while we go about the daily work of rebuilding local and regional food systems that support sustainable, fair farming.