Imagining a Better Food System

Cris Carusi

Sustaining agriculture requires more than just sustainable food production. Growing food in a way that cares for the earth and enhances the health and well-being of its creatures lies at the heart of sustainable agriculture. To create permanent change, however, we need to look beyond food production and address the sustainability of our food system.

The "food system" is simply the way we grow, process, distribute and market food. And the conventional food system is becoming increasingly global. A typical American meal might include beef from Argentina, lettuce from California, and strawberries from Mexico. While we enjoy a diverse abundance of cheap food, many people question the long-term viability of a global food system.

Several NSAS members were kind enough to share their views on the food system. Read on and enjoy their perspectives on energy, quality, convenience, and responsibility for the land and the people who work it.

On Energy

Tom Larson, Farmer, St. Edward

We have a constant supply of food and tremendous variety. But with transportation costs involved, we are focused on who will grow food for the cheapest price. High volume lowers the cost of processing. But smaller processors are going out of business because they can't compete on a volume basis. An example of this is the small meat processing plants which we are losing.

With cheap energy, we get lots of variety in our stores. There is very little seasonal variation in product availability, because we can get food from the southern hemisphere. But growing food for export encourages colonial-style economies. In developing countries, cash crops can impoverish farmers when they no longer have the time or energy to feed themselves, and have to buy their food. This happens here, too. How many farmers really have and depend on gardens to feed themselves?

Conventional markets offer a tremendous amount of products to choose from, at a low price. But its tough for a farmer to break into those markets. Wholesale brokers don't want to deal with you if you don't have a track record. But how do you get a track record if you can't get into the markets?

To change the conventional food system, we need to pay the true cost of energy. I believe it would go a long way if our energy costs were similar to those in Europe and Asia. Right now, I'd guess that we pay about half what folks in those countries pay for energy.

Paying the true cost of energy would make food production and consumption a more localized or regional system. The cost of energy to produce, transport and market food would keep products in a more localized area. Foods would be available in season.

We have a cheap food policy in the US, and we spend the least amount of income on food here. Most developing countries spend anywhere from 30% to 90% of income on food. I think it would be better if we paid the true cost of food, including costs of water cleanup.

On Luxury

Kate Brown, Associate Professor at Creighton University, Omaha

With our current food system, we get to have mangoes and bananas in January. When I was a little girl, half of our Christmas stocking was an orange. It was such a treat. Now we can have oranges any time. The current system makes us conscious of other people in the world if we eat conscientiously. I feel connected to farmers in Guatemala if I eat a banana.

This food system comes at a cost, however, and not necessarily a financial cost. It's the cost of knowing about the production system that results in the banana I eat in January. This system is cruel to the people who raise the banana and the environment in which it is grown. The banana companies take up a tremendous amount of land that could be used for sustenance. They pay workers instead of letting them raise their own food. Even Florida orange juice comes at a tremendous environmental and social cost.

A lot of people - my neighbors and myself for the most part - don't have a clue where their food comes from. And we haven't got a clue how to grow food. If the system ever broke down, we'd be in trouble. A distancing from nature happens with our current food system.

I like the idea of making food systems regional. I like the idea of linking farmers and consumers through regional networks. To satisfy the urban palette, we'd have to diversify the food we grow in a regional system. In Nebraska, we're limited in terms of our ability to raise bananas and mangoes but we could do more to raise diverse grains and vegetables. There's no reason to buy lettuce from California during the months when we can grow it locally.

We should make better use of our land. Even here in North Omaha, I can see that we're misusing space. We should transform ugly vacant lots into something beautiful, like a prairie or a garden. We need to be very, very careful about nurturing our soil in rural and urban settings. The health of our soil is so important to our livelihood. We could do a better job of it.

On Quality

David Bosle, Poultry Producer, Hastings

The cost of food is cheap. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Where else in the world can you go up to a drive-in window, get your food ready-to-eat, and drive away? In most other countries, you'd spend more of your income on food and you'd have to do more preparation to eat it. Although food is cheap, we've sacrificed quality. You get what you pay for.

I think there are opportunities for more locally-grown food, like direct-marketed poultry and subscription gardening, for those who want to pay for quality. If we're going to improve the quality of the food system, the food should be locally grown. The food will be fresher, and consumers can see where and how it is grown. People need to have more choices about their food supply. Cheap isn't necessarily bad. But without locally-grown products, people don't have a choice.

On Ecology

Evrett Lunquist, Community Supported Agriculture Gardener, Lincoln

We have more than enough food. But people are disconnected from their food. There's no interaction between where it comes from and the table. This disconnection from food divides people in rural and urban areas. The issues they face seem different when they're really quite similar. People are moving to the city from rural areas. The cities are overcrowded, while rural towns are drying up. People don't see the relationships between rural and urban problems.

The food system is competitive, and I think that's a bad thing. We all need food. Instead of growing food to meet others' needs, we grow food for our own need to make a living. Hopefully, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) can change that. With CSA, growers and shareholders care for each others' well-being.

CSA gets people thinking about where their food comes from. Some start thinking about the policy ramifications of the food system. Others are just glad to get good food. Peoples' lifestyles change when they join a CSA. They have to start using recipes according to what's in season and what's available.

In terms of ecology, shareholders are kind of living on a piece of land by joining a CSA. The grasshoppers hatched here about a week and a half ago. Some things are bothered by them, others aren't affected. Our bok choy is now full of holes. Our shareholders see the impact of a certain occurrence on the garden - in this case grasshoppers. As a result, they now know more about the ecology of the area.

On Imperialism

Andy Jameton, Associate Professor at the University of NE Medical Center, Omaha

Adequate to excess food is available for the vast majority of the population. Most of our food is clean in that it isn't rotting in the supermarkets, and we don't have to pick rocks and bugs out of it. Processing makes food easy to prepare.

We have to go to the supermarket to buy food, because for the most part we can't buy locally. This means that we have to deal with powers way beyond our control when buying food. Because food isn't grown locally, it's usually very bland. A lot of people eat processed food with too much fat and sugar. Excessive packaging is environmentally expensive. And marketing is misleading - if you ate the way food is advertised, you'd die quickly.

Worldwide, there is grossly unjust and unequal access to food. A lot of land in developing countries that could be used to grow food for consumption is used to grow food for export. The average breakfast - coffee, orange juice, bananas - is imperialistic. It's like they want you to commit yourself early in the day to imperialistic eating.

On Responsibility

Dave Vetter, President of Grain Place Foods, Marquette

I think the conventional food system uses a lot of unnecessary energy for convenience. The distance we move our food is a problem with both the conventional and alternative food systems right now. They're too global and not local enough in nature. The present food system is fairly efficient in terms of how it gets food to the consumer. I'm not certain that it's kept all that much quality intact. However, it's doing that with a great deal of quality as it is defined by the industry.

We use a lot more packaging than we'd need if we had good, whole foods. But that's part of the cost of convenience. I don't see that decreasing - that's what customers have told the industry that they want. I think people in general have given up too much responsibility for their food. They're willing to not be concerned about where their food comes from. Most of us have always had enough to eat.

We put a chunk of the costs of our food system onto the public, rather than paying it ourselves. We're not paying all of our own food bill; instead, we're paying it in doctors' bills, property damage, and soil loss. These are factors of our food system which we don't think about.

One thing that might improve the food system would be requiring a fair price on energy. Cheap energy policy has allowed the conventional food system to happen. Changing that would change the structure and scale of food systems. More regional and local food systems would develop, and more families and business would be involved. We really don't have a lot of players involved in the current food system.

I'd like to see more local and regional supply and distribution systems. Current trade policies are moving the food system the other way. I have no idea what structural requirements will be required to meet the needs of people in a more local food system, but one is probably redistribution of the population with more people feeding themselves to some degree.

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