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Thursday, June 25, 2009 01:28 pm

The high price of cheap food

Counting hidden costs shows Illinois farmers a better way

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At Henry Brockman’s organic and sustainable farm near Bloomington, interns and the owner’s children help harvest beans in the intense afternoon heat of the Mackinaw River floodplain.
PHOTO BY Ginny Lee

The old man leaned on his cane and stared at the line that inevitably forms at the Merwyn’s stand at the Old Capitol Farmers’ Market during strawberry season. At first he seemed to be mumbling to himself, but when he stepped up the volume it was clear he wanted those of us in line to hear him. “I got strawberries last week at the store for sixty-nine cents,” he said. “Now they’re up to a dollar ninety-nine.”

“How much they sellin’ ’em for here?” No one answered, so the old man repeated his query a little louder. I turned towards him, pointed at the sign and said, “They’re three dollars and fifty cents.”

The old man sucked his teeth. “You should go to the grocery store — they’re only a dollar ninety-nine there.” I don’t usually pick fights with frail old men, but somehow I couldn’t stop myself: “Yeah,” I said. “And I’ll bet they’re shipped in from California and grown with toxic chemicals. They don’t have much flavor ’cause they’re picked before they’re ripe — probably by illegal immigrants who’re paid slave wages.”

The old man sucked his teeth again, thrust out his chin and shrugged. “They taste fine to me,” he said, then stumped off.

Torn between indignation that he was trying to dissuade people from buying luscious local berries, and embarrassment for challenging him, I thought about the conundrum of America’s food system. Foods grown and shipped from thousands of miles away, available throughout the year in season and out, cost less than their local counterparts. Why is our food so cheap?

Make no mistake; America’s food is really cheap. In 1960, the average family spent 18 percent of its income on food; today that figure has plummeted to nine percent. That’s less than was ever spent on food throughout history, and less than is spent currently anywhere else worldwide. And that cheap food comes in a staggering array of choices; from pre-prepared heat-and-eat dinners to fresh produce. Moreover, the produce comes not just from America, but from all over the world and is available year round at virtually the same price as when it’s locally in season.

If that sounds almost too good to be true, in many ways it is. Because there are hidden costs for that cheap food, costs that Robert Kenner, director of the just released documentary film Food Inc., says are often “deliberately hidden from us.”

Seasonal fruits and vegetables from central Illinois are sold at the Farmers’ Market.
PHOTO BY ERICKA HINE

One of the main reasons prices at the checkout counter are so low are subsidies. The federal government subsidizes just five crops: corn, soybeans, cotton, rice and wheat. Of those, corn is by far the biggest player. Only the tiniest fraction (less than a bushel per person) of the 1 billion bushels of corn grown annually comes to consumers as corn — on the cob or as chips, tortillas, cornmeal, etc. And that mostly comes from varieties other than field corn. Most field corn is used for animal feed; the rest is turned into a multitude of products and additives such as high fructose corn syrup. It’s been estimated that 50-60 percent of corn farmers’ income comes from those government subsidies — the only way farmers can stay in business when the price they’re paid for corn is less than the cost of producing it. The bottom line is that you’re paying for your food not just at the store, but also with your taxes.

It’s a system many farmers have gotten comfortable with. “Corn and soybeans are easy!” says Pana farmer Jack Erisman. “It’s plant, spray, harvest, drink coffee, collect your government payment.”

Stan Schutte has switched from conventional to sustainable farming, defined as farm practices that don’t deplete the land and natural resources and that provide living wages to farmers and farm workers. Schutte, who sells vegetables, beef, pork and chicken at the Old Capitol Farmers’ Market, the Urbana Farmers’ Market and through his buying club throughout the year, calls it an addiction. Conventional farmers are not going to change…. They’ve gotten lazy. It’s like cocaine. They don’t want to do anything different. And it’s mainly because of the support programs. Until that changes, you’re not going to see a change [in Illinois agriculture].”

Bruce Williamson stocks local and seasonal produce at Food Fantasies.
PHOTO BY JOSEPH COPLEY

Advocates of conventional farming (though it’s only been “conventional” for 30-40 years) like to point out that 95 percent of U.S. farms are family owned. Kenner and author Michael Pollan, who worked with Kenner on Food, Inc. say in two public radio interviews that while that’s true, it’s misleading. A few trans-global companies control the market through which conventional family farmers sell their harvest, such as ADM and Cargill, and control the prices farmers are paid. “Everything has to pass through the needle eye of these mega-corporations,” they say. Four companies process 90 percent of American beef. Conventional farmers not only have to sell to these large corporations, they must buy from them, too. St. Louis-based Monsanto controls “a huge percentage” of America’s seed supply, which they’ve been patenting since the 1980s, forcing farmers to buy new seed every year as opposed to saving seed from one year to plant the next, as had been done since the beginning of crop cultivation.

It’s those huge corporations, say Kenner and Pollan, that diligently attempt to limit consumers’ knowledge about what’s in their food and how it’s raised. “One of the things that was the most shocking to me when we were making Food Inc.,” says Kenner, “was when we filmed hearings…about labeling cloned meat. I didn’t even know there was such a thing. An industry rep stood up and said, ‘We think it would be against the interest of the consumer to give that kind of information — it would just be confusing to them.’ It happens over and over again. The industry fights labeling of fast food menus, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and fought against labeling transfats. They don’t want you to know what’s in the food because they want you to eat as much of it as possible.”

What about all the crops and foods that aren’t subsidized? Large corporations dominate many of them as well.

A Tyson chicken grower, like Francisco Pedroza pictured here, provides land, labor, poultry houses and fuel, but never owns the birds raised for the large corporation.
PHOTO BY BRENDAN M. CASE/MCT

Arkansas-based Tyson Foods is the world’s largest chicken processor. Eric Schlosser reports in his book, Fast Food Nation, that Tyson is a “vertically integrated company that breeds, slaughters and processes chicken. It does not, however, raise the birds. It leaves the capital expenditures and financial risks to thousands of ‘independent’ growers.

“A Tyson chicken grower never owns the birds in his or her poultry houses. Like most other leading processors, Tyson supplies its growers with day-old chicks. Between the day they are born and the day they are killed, the birds spend their entire lives on the growers’ property. But they belong to Tyson. The company supplies the feed, veterinary services and technical support. It determines feeding schedules, demands equipment upgrades, and employs ‘flock supervisors’ to make sure corporate directives are being followed. It hires trucks that drop off the baby chicks and return seven weeks later to pick up full-grown chickens ready for slaughter. At the processing plant, Tyson employees count and weigh the birds. A grower’s income is determined by a formula based on that count, that weight and the amount of feed used.”

“The chicken grower provides the land, the labor, the poultry houses and the fuel. Most growers must borrow money to build the houses, which cost about $150,000 each and hold about 25,000 birds. A 1995 survey by Louisiana Tech University found that the typical grower had been raising chickens for 15 years, owned three poultry houses, remained deeply in debt and earned about $12,000 a year. About half of the nation’s chicken growers leave the business after just three years, either selling out or losing everything. The back roads of Arkansas are now littered with abandoned poultry houses.”

Concerned about illegal immigration issues? Then you should know that America’s supply of year-round, inexpensive fresh produce depends on vast numbers of illegal aliens. Not all growers use illegal aliens, but using them is so preponderant that it drives down prices overall. Many live in virtual slavery. If that sounds exaggerated, consider the words of Douglas Molloy, chief U.S. attorney for the south Florida region that supplies as much as 90 percent of America’s fresh tomatoes from December to May. In Gourmet Magazine’s March 2009 issue “when asked if it is reasonable to assume that an American who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store or food-service company during the winter has eaten fruit picked by the hand of a slave, Molloy said, ‘It’s not an assumption. It’s a fact.’” He says his district is “ground zero for modern slavery.”

The Gourmet article tells the story of a Guatemalan illegal, Lucas. His employer/landlord cashed his checks, deducting for room and board (the “room” was the back of a box truck without running water or toilet). Showers from a backyard hose cost $5. If Lucas inquired about his balance he was beaten. If he was sick or too exhausted to work, he was kicked in the head, beaten and locked in the truck. On Nov. 18, 2007, after two and a half years, he saw a gap in the truck’s ceiling and punched his way to freedom. Officials say he was deprived of over $55,000. Lucas’ case is not unusual; since 1997 law-enforcement officials have freed more than 1,000 people in similar situations. They believe those represent only a fraction the problem: “Frightened, undocumented, mistrustful of the police and speaking little or no English, most slaves refuse to testify. ‘Unlike victims of other crimes,’ said Molloy, ‘They hide from us in plain sight.”’

Competition from countries with even lower wages and less regulations makes keeping prices low critical for conventional farmers. China currently supplies “the preponderance of our apples, garlic and, very soon, potatoes,” says Terra Brockman, executive director of The Land Connection, an Illinois nonprofit that “envisions community-based food systems in the Midwest in which every farmer has the opportunity to grow food in a sustainable manner, and every person has the choice to enjoy local and organic foods.” She cites economist John Ikerd’s prediction that an OFEC (Organization of Food Exporting Countries) will arise with “even worse repercussions that OPEC. We can live without oil; we can’t live without food.”

A growing disillusionment with, and awareness of the hidden costs of industrial agriculture has made sustainable and/or organically grown products the fastest-growing segment of the food industry. And advocates for sustainable food have, for the first time, found a place in federal government. Most prominent is Kathleen Merrigan, the USDA’s No. 2 official. Merrigan has a background in environmental planning and policy, and has worked as a senior analyst for organizations promoting research and education in sustainable agriculture and within the USDA.

Groceries stock produce year-round from Florida and California, and every corner of the globe.
PHOTO BY JOSEPH COPLEY

Still, advocates of industrial agriculture, such as the American Council on Science and Health, are fighting tooth and nail against any shift away from “conventional farming.” The ACSH calls itself “a consumer education consortium concerned with issues related to food, nutrition, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, lifestyle, the environment and health.” Associate director Jeff Steir recently took the Obamas to task for planting an organic White House Garden, calling them “Liberal Limousine Elitists.” He said, “It’s irresponsible to tell people that you have to eat organic locally grown foods. That’s a serious public health concern, because not everyone can afford that. People are going to be eating fewer fruits and vegetables. Obesity rates will go up. Cancer rates are going to go up. I think that if we decide we’re only going to eat locally grown foods, we’re going to have a lot of starvation.” Samantha Bee on TV’s “The Daily Show” wryly observed that Steir was accusing the White House garden of being “that rare public health threat that can simultaneously cause starvation and obesity.” ACSH is independent, nonprofit and tax-exempt, but, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, receives funding from a long list of corporate giants, including Exxon/Mobil, ConAgra, Dupont, Union Carbide, Dow, Monsanto and ADM.

To an extent, the perception that sustainably grown food is necessarily more costly is mistaken. Brockman has for years done a midsummer cost comparison of vegetables from her brother Henry’s farm north of Bloomington-Normal with those in the local Jewel. Henry sells his produce at Chicago’s Greenmarket and to some of Chicago’s best restaurants, but the Brockmans have found that produce for participants in his CSA (Community Supported Agriculture, a program in which members pay for a share of the season’s produce, with weekly pickups/deliveries) usually costs less than grocery store equivalents — often just half as much. Atlanta, Ill., farmer Dave Bishop has even found that prices for his pastured beef and poultry compare favorably with his local Wal-Mart.

Many remain convinced that industrial agriculture is the only way enough food can be grown to feed a hungry world. They’re skeptical — even disbelieving — when told that sustainable farming, using methods both old and new, can actually produce more food per acre than conventional farming. But numbers provide the proof. An acre of conventionally raised corn at today’s prices would fetch $602, although by the end of the year, it’s projected to cost $716.55 — and takes 50-plus gallons of fossil fuel to produce. In contrast, a local Springfield produce farmer using sustainable practices says he earns as much as $16,000 per acre.

Poultry section at Wal-Mart
PHOTO BY JOSEPH COPLEY

Locally, programs are currently available to help disadvantaged folks buy healthy food, such as the WIC program for women, infants and children (tel. 217-836-6946) and Senior Citizen Farmers’ Market coupons from the Area Agency on Aging, (tel. 217-787-9234).

Proponents of sustainable agriculture are passionate about and committed to making healthy, sustainably grown food available and affordable for everyone. They know it will take energy and effort. The Lumpkin Family Foundation, based in Mattoon, commissioned a study in 2004, “Feeding Ourselves: Strategies for a New Illinois Food System.” It identified objectives that must be met to move beyond the current industrial agriculture model. Chief among them were the development of infrastructure that will allow products to be locally processed and marketed, including storage facilities where perishable products can be refrigerated and loads consolidated, transportation, and processing facilities for dairy, livestock and fresh produce. Knowledge, training and making farmland available and affordable to an expanded population of farmers are also crucial — areas that comprise much of the focus of The Illinois Stewardship Alliance and The Land Connection. Last, not least, is political will.

Eliminating the hidden costs of cheap food doesn’t necessarily mean that all food will become vastly more expensive. It will probably be a mixed bag — some foods costing more, some less, others staying the same. Farmers, processors and sellers will need support and creativity to develop cost-effective strategies. Consumers will need to make educated choices about what and how they eat.

“We will not be able to feed everyone on healthier food unless we change the incentive structure of American agriculture,” say Kenner and Pollan. But ultimately they believe that transforming our food system won’t be a choice, given its reliance on fossil fuel: “In the same way we’re going to have to run an industrial system without cheap fossil fuel in the next 50-100 years, the same is true for agriculture.”  

Julianne Glatz writes the weekly food column “Realcuisine” for Illinois Times. Contact her at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

Food Inc. premiered in major U.S. cities June 19th. It is not yet scheduled to be shown locally, although the lIllinois Stewardship Alliance is working towards a Springfield screening.

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