Over the past several months we’ve seen: a freak early-season snow storm in the Dakotas that killed tens of thousands of cattle that could take affected ranchers more than a decade to recover from, continued and expanding drought conditions in the corn belt of the Upper Midwest, extended drought cutting off irrigation water in the “produce basket” of the Central Valley of California, massively destructive storms and flooding in the Gulf Coast, and a deadly virus killing piglets in more than half the country. In spite of this, we’re just finally seeing reports that the price of food is creeping higher – a whopping 0.4% two months in a row! – with the increasing price of bacon the one most people are complaining about.
Sustainability advocates like John Ikerd, Wendell Berry and Fred Kirschenmann have long criticized the conventional, global food system as unsustainable and vulnerable to severe disruptions such as those described above. For the most part, I agree with this general concern (otherwise I’d be doing something else) and just last year collaborated on a review paper assessing what we know about the vulnerability of domestic food security to climatic disruption. However, in spite of these concerns, I think we can’t ignore the evidence that to date our highly criticized conventional food system has done three things remarkably well:
Produce an abundance of food, keep the price of that food extremely low, and insulate consumers from the volatility of food production.
A lot has been written about the first two of these – with the oft-quoted statistic that Americans spend roughly 6% of household income on food (the basis for that statistic is the USDA Economic Research Service). While an increase in the cost of food as we’ve seen recently can be difficult for many people on tight budgets and there are certainly communities and populations within the US that experience serious food insecurity, for the average American consumer 0.4% of 6% is what one of my farmer friends calls “budget dust”. And that’s exactly the observation that I find so remarkable –in spite of the tremendous volatility that farmers deal with year-in, year-out, let alone the extreme circumstances like those referenced above, the impact on consumers is barely perceptible. For the average consumer the interpretation is often that they need to eat a little less bacon and a little more chicken instead.
One of more interesting ways this is presented each year is the Farm Bureau’s “Cost of Thanksgiving Dinner” survey. While the nominal price has trended up over the 3 decades they’ve published this survey, the inflation-adjusted price is actually slightly down overall! What I find even more fascinating, though, is how relatively stable the price has been – while we know that crop yields and prices have been much more volatile putting significant numbers of farmers out of business.
For most of human history, access to a sufficient, stable and reliable supply of food was the primary concern for most people. It still is for many people in the world today. The conventional food system has evolved (as intentionally driven by federal ag policy) to produce, store, process and transport massive amounts of food as an insurance strategy for overcoming localized or regional production disruptions. On occasion, an impact to a major food crop or livestock system is so severe that for a few weeks or months you can’t get a tomato for your salad or the price of bacon goes up a bit. In spite of these periodic anomalies, for an extended period of decades the conventional food system has largely delivered stability and insulation to the average US consumer – a feat never-before-achieved in history. To think, generations born after the Great Depression and World War II have never experienced a severe, nation-wide food shortage!
I fully agree that there are legitimate concerns about the continued sustainability and vulnerability of the conventional food system in the US – and it may yet prove to be the case that the past 60-70 years in the U.S. have been exceptional rather than a “new normal”. That being said, when multiple generations are naïve to what a severe and pervasive food crisis feels like, and very few of us even know how to produce our own food, it’s easy to see why the average consumer has become so insulated to the realities of risk and volatility in food production.
Sustainable agriculture pioneers like Ikerd and Kirschenmann have long pointed to alternative food system models, such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription farms, as pathways for building a new food system that both address many of the sustainability concerns of the conventional system and re-engage consumers with producers. One of the oft-cited risks and benefits of the CSA model is that consumers share in the actual risk of food production with the farmer by purchasing “food shares” in advance. If the year goes well, there is a bountiful harvest and everyone is happy. If the weather (or another factor) disrupts production then the consumer “feels the pain” along with the farmer.
It’s exciting to me that these alternative models continue to emerge and grow – because that is the primary mechanism by which we can re-connect production and consumption. However, my observation is that these models are growing not-so-much due to consumers’ concern about “shared risk” as much as the “shared experience”, values, and the strongly-held perception that food produced by your local farmer just flat out tastes better and thus makes the risk worth taking. In reality, when the CSA farm has a down year, the consumer chalks up a relatively minor financial loss and can turn to the conventional food system (or another alternative) to purchase the food they need. This is similar to another example where my colleague Andy has pointed out that the success of sustainable food systems models is still somewhat interdependent on the conventional food system or the idea that many renewable energy systems function best when interconnected to the conventional energy system. We need to keep working on this challenge.
I’m not sure whether there is a definitive solution to the disconnect that has emerged between production and consumption. In fact, I think that the benefit the conventional food system has brought to food security is both a remarkable feat and one that we need to not under-appreciate or lose sight of in the sustainability conversation. For the average consumer risking the benefit of wide-spread food security will be a huge deterrent to continued growth of sustainable food systems if it’s not accounted for in thinking.