Michael Olson hosts a weekly internet radio program aimed at the local food movement. As a general rule I do not pay much attention to these fringe podcasts, but last week his topic caught my attention. He said, “Like most industries, agriculture seems to be heading in one of two directions: very big or very small.” The program was supposed to be a discussion of these two different trends. According to Olson, the topics were to be “a look at the two directions in which the producers of agriculture appear to be headed; from which agriculture will the graduating students want to feed their families’ future; and what they, as individuals, will do to help sustain that agriculture.” Sadly, that is not what the program turned out to be. This is unfortunate because the issue deserves a fair and balanced discussion and some informed thought on what the food production system will be like in the future.
Instead of putting informed experts from both sides on this program, Olson’s guests were two California college students who had been working as his interns for the past few months. What resulted was 40 minutes of bashing “industrialized” agriculture, conspiracy theories about Monsanto and the FDA, and lots of smug, elitist sarcasm. The conclusion of the program was that big ag is bad, local is good, and people are going to want to eat more locally produced food in the future. Absent from the discussion was any connection to reality, any discussion of economics, or any acknowledgement that not everyone wants to make the same food choices as 20-something California college students.
So let’s examine the two different trends currently taking place in the food sector. Olson’s analogy to “a fork in the road” assumes that modern agriculture and local agriculture are mutually exclusive. This is simply not the case. Modern food production characterized by intensive farming techniques, technology, and large food processors and retailers is how most Americans and other developed nations get their food. The local food movement is growing but, while there are more and more outlets to obtain locally produced food products, is still a very small part of the food production system. There is nothing to say both systems cannot exist side by side.
As for the future, while the locavores like to romanticize about the day when everyone will eat food grown just down the road, the hard facts are that the local food system is not capable of meeting the food demands of the future. While it may come as a shock to those who tune into Olson’s program, not everyone wants to eat the way we did 100 years ago with only the food we grew ourselves or from the small farm down the road available to us. I foresee what happened to the organic movement happening to the local food movement.
A decade ago, the organic food movement was all the rage. It was mainly small independent producers who were involved in growing food products organically. When Wall Street discovered the fact that consumers would pay more for organic food products, big business stepped in and took over the organic food movement. Today many organic brands are produced by big food processors, many of which also produce non-organic food products. When the local food movement gains enough interest by consumers, you will see big business step in and develop local brands and regional production systems. In the end, consumers will have a choice: either locally produced foods or those produced by large international brands.
From a farmer’s perspective, growing food is a business whether you do it on 5 acres or 5,000 acres. You are proud of the food you grow but are always aware of the bottom line. It is about producing food for a market, whether that is a farmers’ market or Wal-Mart. So, in the future, how will we produce our food? Much the same way as we do it today. We will use technology to maximize production at the lowest cost as well as grow for niche markets that demand certain production styles but pay a higher price per product.
There is no fork in the road to take. Consumers will make food choices in the future as they do today: based on availability, taste, safety, and personal preferences. Farmers, both large and small, will still react to market signals both with modern ag methods and with locally-grown products. So, the local food movement would help its cause a lot more by promoting the benefits of its production system rather than bashing the rest of agriculture.
By Gary Truitt