Sustainable Shifts in the Food Chain

By: Woody Woodruff
At one point in time in the history of modern agriculture farmers grew what the consumer wanted to eat. This is known as the law of supply and demand. When the food chain was in its rawest form, farmers supplied whole foods and consumers then finished the chain by grinding, fermenting, drying, canning, and storing, and the law of supply and demand worked. When mother-nature was good to the farmers’ crops, and supply for something was plentiful, the price was lower. If farmers’ yields were down and they could not keep up with local demand for a crop, this meant the price went higher.  Weather helped to establish a healthy balance between the economics of price and production and a wider variety of crops were grown that could grow in different weather conditions. This helped to minimize risks from weather in the food supply side.

However, this producer-consumer paradigm changed once society entered into the industrial revolution.  During this time period, consumers had less time to process their food and fewer and fewer farm kids stayed on the farm to produce that food with factory wages enticing them away. Industry developed to do the processing for almost all of the consumers. In reality, the same amount of consumers remained in the food chain. We are all consumers. But what was being eaten was now being influenced by the economics facing those in the business of processing food.

If you invest in processing food for the masses, you need to keep up with demand from consumers to stay in business. A lot of processers where lost because the diet of consumers was so varied from region to region. This had a lot to do with our being a melting pot of ethnic foods. The more diversified the diet the more diversified the equipment needed to process that food. Few food processers could afford the large equipment investment needed to process an ethnically diverse food product system. Those smaller processers were bought out to make fewer companies, which resulted in changes in the food chain. In addition, crops that had higher levels of losses from changes in weather were not incentivized while grains like corn, with the greatest level of yield, were targeted with incentives. The ideas was that if we focused our energy and research on fewer species of grain and livestock, we could maximize production to keep the cost low and yield high.

It made good economic sense to have consumers eat processed foods from fewer crops.  This would equate to less of an investment in infrastructure and create a cheaper food source.  So, through creative marketing, the food industry reduced the cost of processing just by getting consumers to buy products from a less-diversified system of crops. Farmers became efficient at growing those fewer subsidized crops with less diverse equipment needs, and subsidy dollars encouraged farmers to focus on producing higher yields. This industry focus on mass production has created a disconnect between the producers and the living soils that are so vital to healthy food production, as well as consumers and our need for a diverse and healthy fresh food source.

Over time, the producers’ input costs have continued to grow while the subsidized price of corn, soy beans and wheat grains have been held down from influences in a global market. Farmers continue to be pushed to the brink of bankruptcy and new farmers are finding it too risky to become a producer.

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The law of supply and demand has been a key driving force in agriculture, and now consumers are demanding a change to not only what we grow, but how we grow it. Consumers want to insure that the food chain is healthier not only for the consumer, but also for the producer. Consumers are demanding higher quality food with regards to health and diversity as well as a more sustainable and localized food production system. Consumers are demanding better health and they are not getting it. The cost of not having a healthy diet and not being healthy is high! Farmers are paying a high price as well. The cost of inputs from not being diversified in our mono-cultural production system is affecting the health of our farms and farm families.

The issues regarding supply and demand in food production are not going without notice from the food chain industry either.  Walmart and Smith Foods just met in St. Louis with 100 other Agricultural retailers to discuss the importance and the demand from consumers for a more sustainable grain production system. Three messages from the meeting were clear:

  1. The farmer’s connection with the consumers of their products is increasing.
  2. Optimizing fertilizer use and soil health will offer a business opportunity for growers, Ag retailers, and food companies alike.
  3. The demand for more sustainable crops is here to stay.

Fertilizer used on corn was found to be a top greenhouse gas hotspot for more than half of Walmart’s suppliers. That fact prompted the world’s largest grocer to ask leading food companies to increase fertilizer efficiency and soil health in their sourcing regions. Walmart suppliers and partners have pledged support to improve fertilizer efficiency and soil health on 23 million acres of grain cropland by 2020. This move by some of the leading companies in the food chain industry shows that the law of supply and demand is working.  If your food production source is not sustainable, then changes need to be made to make it economical and healthy for producers and consumers.  America’s strength comes from its melting pot of diversity. If we want to sustain that strength we need to diversify the crop production system. We need to protect the health of our land and water resources. As producers we need to supply or schools, our nursing homes, our local markets with the freshest, safest produce possible.  As consumers we need to demand and support local, fresh, wholesome diversity in what we eat.  As consumers we need to demand sustainability to the health of the food chain system. If you do not know how something was raised or how something was processed, how do you truly know what you’re eating is safe? The producer and the consumer need to re-connect.  Buy fresh, buy local, buy whole foods, and stay healthy.