The Common Good
May 2006

Check Please!

by Cathleen Hockman-Wert | May 2006

Our long-distance food system provides choice - but at what cost?

When global food shortages loomed 30 years ago, the Mennonite Central Committee asked its constituents to eat and spend 10 percent less on food. To help with that, the international relief and development organization produced More-with-Less Cookbook, which connects Christian faith with eating rice and beans. Eating more simply, cookbook author Doris Janzen Longacre argued, was not about “cutting back.” Rather, it meant “living joyfully, richly, creatively.”

[In] summer [2005], MCC released another cookbook that calls people of faith to connect values and eating habits. Simply in Season, which I co-wrote with Mary Beth Lind, promotes local, fairly traded, and sustainably grown foods, even if choosing them means spending more.

I approach these choices with no special expertise—I’m just an interested Christian consumer who wants to make decisions in line with my faith. And I confess that paying more for food goes against my North American sense of entitlement to cheap food and my inbred Mennonite frugality. My people believe thriftiness could give cleanliness some solid competition for that place next to godliness.

But what’s not to like about cheap food? Here’s the journey one devout penny-pincher made from spending less to spending for a better world.

Food is food? If one potato, pound of hamburger, or cup of coffee is basically the same as any other, it makes sense for conscientious consumers to choose based on price. Stretching dollars means having more available to help others.

For me the first step away from giving such priority to the cost of food came by seeing that each item has a story—and that the story behind one potato can be very different from another. Some stories are much more in tune with my values.

If we could read the whole story, we’d know where food was grown, by whom, under what conditions, and for whose profit. Chapters would trace the seeds’ origins and describe the transporting, processing, packaging, and marketing of our food. By the end, we would clearly see our food’s impact on environmental health, our local economies, our neighbors who farm, and on people around the world.

The book Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, by John Ryan and Alan Thein Durning, outlines the story of a cup of coffee. When the book was published in 1997, I hadn’t heard much about small coffee growers struggling to survive in today’s global marketplace. But the way Stuff showed the environmental impact of one person’s coffee habit began to gnaw at me. At two cups a day, the authors write, Colombian farms have 12 coffee trees growing to support my personal addiction. And each year, they continue, Colombia’s rivers will swell with 43 pounds of coffee pulp stripped from my beans. There the decomposing pulp consumes oxygen needed by fish.

Stuff showed that choosing organic, shade-grown coffee protects the health of wildlife and farmers. Doing so seemed worth a few extra cents per cup. But while it seems understandable not to have known the story of tropical foods produced far away, I had much to learn about the different ways food is grown here in North America.

The pollution tab. Although conventional food systems are stunningly successful at producing inexpensive food, it comes with hidden costs.

Fertilizer-dependent monocultures—planting the same few crops on the same land year after year—deplete soil’s fertility and health. (In contrast, sustainable farming methods concentrate on building up the soil). They also diminish the natural defenses that biodiversity provides against disease and insect damage. Use of insecticides must be ever- intensified. In time we’re left with the striking image from Michael Pollan’s book Botany of Desire: a field of potatoes rooted in “a lifeless gray powder.”

In such conditions, erosion increases. The best topsoil is washed away, carrying with it unused crop nutrients and pesticide residues, which impact wildlife downstream. They also can pollute well water, a health concern especially for pregnant women, nursing mothers, and infants.

The “pollution tab” doesn’t show up at the supermarket, but that doesn’t mean we don’t pay. In 1992, Cornell University professor David Pimentel calculated that U.S. farmers spend some $4 billion annually on pesticides to protect about $16 billion of crops. Doing so creates extra costs passed on to society at large—medical care for farm workers’ pesticide-induced cancers, fishery losses, the shortfall in honey production caused by dead bees, and more. The final price tag? Another $8 billion.

Other conventional farming practices have serious consequences. Depletion of ancient reserves of fresh water and the loss of crop genetic diversity are just two. But aside from tolls on God’s creation, food’s story also includes costs in human lives.

Oil in our food—and it ain’t canola. A few years ago the “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign noted that relying on imported oil from unstable regions threatens peace and security. Combined with vehicle emissions, this contribution to global warming threatens millions of lives, organizers said, and violates Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I tend to think about my use of fossil fuels when debating whether to drive or ride my bike. I have been less likely to think about the role oil plays in the story of my food.

In conventional agriculture, fossil fuels are needed to operate farm equipment and produce fertilizers. Growing one calorie of food takes at least one calorie’s worth of fossil fuels. Food processing requires additional energy: Picture a half-gallon pitcher of gasoline next to two one-pound boxes of breakfast cereal.

Now add the “food miles.” Studies show that, on average, fresh produce travels more than 1,000 miles from field to U.S. table. This doesn’t include the circuitous routes food travels when, for example, California tomatoes are shipped to Canada to be made into ketchup for California consumption. Consider that if Iowans ate just 10 percent more food from their own state, savings in carbon dioxide emissions would total the equivalent of getting 500 cars off the road.

Local organic foods are wonderful alternatives to conventionally grown ones, but when it isn’t possible to find foods with both qualities, many sources today say go local. Start by asking how far this food has traveled. The Washington-based Cascadian Farm, a familiar brand of frozen organic foods, cozily references the mountain range east of my home. Yet a label check reveals edamame soybeans from China, cherries from Chile, and berries from Poland. Turns out Cascadian Farm was bought by General Mills. Which brings us to the next topic.

Who profits? Today’s global food supply is largely controlled by a few giant transnational corporations, such as Altria (Philip Morris), Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, ConAgra, and General Mills. The major role these businesses play in the story of our food is obscured by the variety of brands that appear on a food product’s “cover.”

For example, in shopping for popcorn I might choose among Act II, Orville Redenbacher, Healthy Choice, and Jiffy Pop. Margarine to pour on top might be Blue Bonnet, Move Over Butter, or Parkay. All of these—and 60-plus other brands—are owned by ConAgra.

This is just the beginning. To varying degrees, transnational corporations own or have influence in the entire food production chain—farmland and farm finance, seeds and equipment, fertilizers and pesticides, grain collection and milling, livestock production and slaughtering, and more.

This is bad news for farmers. Agribusinesses determine the price growers must pay for essential inputs, such as seed, and set the price they get for their harvest. Between the two, the farmers’ profit margin squeezes hairline thin, while agribusinesses grow richer.

But the toll on the world’s poor is even graver.

Cheap food reduces hunger? This is where the story of food takes a sadly ironic twist for me, because I come from a religious tradition rooted in farming. In the 1870s, Mennonites famously introduced Turkey Red wheat to Kansas, now the “bread basket of the world.” With other people of faith, we long to heed scripture’s call to feed the hungry. You would think a system that produces an abundance of food would ease the suffering of “the least of these.” Unfortunately, reality isn’t that straightforward.

Much of the conventionally grown food from U.S. corporate farms is subsidized by our government in the form of price supports, tax breaks, and direct payments. As a result, staples such as wheat or rice can be sold at less than their cost of production. Corn—the most heavily subsidized American food crop—sells in Mexico for 25 percent less than it costs to grow.

This sounds good for Mexican consumers, but remember that in many developing countries, 60 to 70 percent of the population makes its living off agriculture. If cheap imports undercut local prices, desperate farmers are forced to sell their land and work for agribusinesses, which then control that land. If wages are inadequate, workers leave to seek jobs in urban areas, creating an influx of labor that drives down wages and increases poverty there, too. Hungry people can’t afford to buy the food they need to survive.

As Tina Rosenberg wrote a couple years ago in The New York Times, “Wealthy countries do far more harm to poor nations with these subsidies than they do good with foreign aid.”

It might seem that the answer is for farmers to find their own niche of specialized crops to grow for export. But small farmers cannot enter the global marketplace on their own. They need intermediaries to process, store, move, and market their produce. International trade agreement rules and swings in world markets result in highly changeable prices for export crops. Little profit trickles down from the corporations to those who produce the food.

Here we see the value of fair trade organizations such as Equal Exchange, a coffee, tea, and chocolate company. They ensure that producers get a living wage. Otherwise, the way to improve the lives of our neediest global neighbors is not by buying their food exports. According to Via Campesina, an international network of small-scale farmer organizations, the need instead is to support policies that re-establish small farmers’ access to local markets.

Everyone eats. Changing policies may seem beyond what many of us can do. But we all eat. We all make choices about the foods we buy—choices we can make and reshape through our faith.

I still value frugality. I’m still happy to eat rice and beans. My well-worn More-with-Less Cookbook points out that whole foods tend to be less expensive (and healthier) than processed convenience foods. And I rejoice when I see seasonal produce at my farmers market at prices competitive to those in the supermarket.

But price is no longer my first consideration. I want my food to have good stories. A priceless benefit of going local is that I can know those stories: I can ask my farmer.

Allocating more of our family budget for local, organic, grass-fed, and fairly traded food has meant having less money for other things. Yet I’ve come to see that willing sacrifice and joy can be two sides of the same coin. “Denying” myself imported raspberries in winter makes the local ones taste even more exquisite when they ripen in summer. And putting my money where my faith is feeds into a new sense of appreciation I’ve gained for food, God’s unspeakably precious and delightful gift.

Grocery shopping is becoming a spiritual discipline for me. When I visit a farmers market, when I drink a cup of fairly traded coffee, I’m praying for—and directly investing in—a better world.

It’s a new kind of more-with-less: Foods that offer a little more connection, and maybe a little less exploitation. More concern for all of God’s creation, and a little less ecological harm. More stable rural communities, and less consolidation of wealth and power. More health for everyone. More gratitude. And even more joy.

When this article appeared, Cathleen Hockman-Wert—co-author, with Mary Beth Lind, of Simply in Season, a cookbook celebrating fresh, local food—lived in Corvallis, Oregon, where she was an enthusiastic farmers market shopper.

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