Tuesday, May 21, 2024

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The Future Of Farm-To-Table


The farm-to-table movement has helped thousands of farmers sweeten the fruits of their labor. But whether or not it can sustain itself remains an open question. Barring a radical shift in the movement’s general strategy, I’d say the prospects look grim.

The national effort to localize food systems has its earliest roots in the Nixon era. It was then that Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz arrogantly decreed that American farms should “get big or get out.” For many Americans — even those brought up on TV dinners — this message was too much.

Fed up with industrially produced junk that systematically harmed humans and their environment, consumers articulated an agrarian alternative that espoused farming practices considered “humane,” “sustainable,” and “non-industrial.” Small is beautiful, the saying went. Many farmers agreed.

Knowing they’d have to pony up to support this vision, Americans did their part. Between 1994 and 2014, the number of farmers’ markets in the country grew from 1,755 to 8,268. Over the past decade, the number of small farms in the U.S. increased for the first time since the 1920s. Between 1997 and 2007, farms selling locally grown produce directly to the consumer spiked by 24 percent.

So, yes, even though most small farmers continue to struggle economically, evidence supports the claim that they’ve benefited from farm-to-table sourcing. But can this modest progress last?

Underscoring this question is the fact that small farms routinely pursue the production of animal-based goods. From grass-fed beef to pastured eggs to free-ranged chicken to “humane” pork, they have promoted the seductive notion that consumers can choose non-industrial meat as an act of defiance against industrial agriculture.

But this is the movement’s fatal flaw.

Industrial meat production rules the roost. It exists and thrives due to a fierce combination of vertical integration, animal consolidation, market expansion and government subsidies.

Since the days of Earl Butz, corporations including Tyson Foods, Hormel, and Iowa Beef Processors have achieved de facto monopolies over the nation’s supply of chicken, pork, and beef. And every ounce of that meat, due to the massive scale of these corporations, is unconscionably cheap.

Sure, the tactics these companies employ to solidify their dominance can be unfair; sure, their work is highly polluting; and sure, they treat millions of workers and billions of animals horribly in order to crank out the commodity meat that clogs the arteries of our food system. This is all common knowledge.

But it happens to be the system that we’ve inherited. And with the United States about to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which has been dubbed “NAFTA on steroids” — it’s also a system poised to conquer several Asian markets, where hundreds of millions await the chance to choke down the standard American diet, one in which it’s perfectly normal to eat more than 200 pounds of meat a year.

To reasonably think that this highly consolidated and globally expansive leviathan could be summarily dismantled and replaced with a decentralized arrangement of small farms — farms producing more expensive cuts of the same commodity — strikes me as unrealistic at best. It’d be like predicting a mass rejection of iTunes for vinyl records. Sure, vinyl is great, but still.

Of course, there will always be people willing to pay a mint for a righteous pork chop, but at the end the end of the day you can’t beat the devil at his game. As long as we eat animals, as long as the basic rules of economics persist, Big Ag will always rule the meat racket.

Fortunately, what the farm-to-table movement has going for it is a tremendous wealth of hard-earned cultural capital. On this score, it need not try and compete with industrial agriculture, which is roundly despised by conscientious consumers even as we continue to enjoy its cheap burgers.

Instead of going head-to-head with industrial meat or trying to gain market share in that sector, what the food movement could do with its capital is something truly radical: Redefine not only where our food comes from, but what it means to eat in the first place.

There are more than 30,000 edible plants in the world; 10 of them provide 90 percent of our plant-based food. That’s a tragedy. We need a food system in which the goods that travel from farm-to-table are nutrient-dense plants that bowl us over with their novelty, nourish us in their diversity and free us from the tyranny of a food system designed to produce dirt cheap meat.

No group is better poised to initiate that process than small farmers.


6 Comments on The Future Of Farm-To-Table

  1. John T. Maher // February 21, 2015 at 1:47 pm // Reply

    We are approaching Peak Cruelty in animal agriculture, probably around 2035. Good to see the discussion of TPP and TAFTA resurface in McW-Media. The problem of which you speak is interdisciplinary and involves land grabs, bankers, tax codes, zoning laws, social welfare and the neoliberal state. Smallholders and specialty farmers will never be able to survive alone and a radical reconfiguration of the economy is necessary to prevent the accretion of agricultural capital and the many disadvantages it produces. In the meantime I am plotting out my future potato crops.

  2. Dirt cheap meat???

    No sure James where you shop but meat is NOT dirt cheap in fact it is the highest it has ever been!!

    • James McWilliams // February 21, 2015 at 4:54 pm // Reply

      With the possible exception of some beef, meat is cheaper than it has ever been. In the last 40 years alone, it has dropped form 5 to 1.5 percent of the household budget.

  3. Shane Destry // February 21, 2015 at 7:15 pm // Reply

    Thank you James McWilliams for an essay which is both predictive and normative for the realities of “Small Is Beautiful” organic farming being plant based and abandoning eating animals. With recent revelations by the M.I.T. study that factory farming via Monsanto may be responsible for a 50% autism rate among children by the year 2025, if we don’t evolve beyond factory farming fast, and go back to small communal farms, we will not be evolving any longer at all !

  4. This analysis fails to consider the indisputable correctives that both climate change and peak oil will force on all systems, industrial, global-scale meat production and distribution chief among them.

    The future is not a guaranteed superhighway to more, better, faster, cheaper when the cheap energy that supplies it, and the pollution impact of using that energy, are themselves not sustainable and in rapid decline.

    So there’s hope yet for more go-local. It will just be a shock to all those wired millennial that jobs will be more about schlepping and less about pushing buttons and writing opinion blogs.

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