Food fight: Do locavores really need math lessons ?  

Posted by Big Gav in

Grist has a series of responses to the recent op-ed in the NYT about locavores, looking at factors other than economics based on the current oil price - Food fight: Do locavores really need math lessons?.

As it happens, I was already doing some food calculations the day Budiansky's piece ran -- but not of the sort he discussed.

My numbers included the following: As of Friday, 450 million eggs originating from two Iowa egg operations -- both of which buy feed and chicks from the same company -- had been recalled from stores in 14 states for salmonella contamination. These days, record-breaking food recalls are happening with disturbing frequency. We won't soon forget the 2009 peanut recall that affected nearly 4,000 products; the 2008 recall of 143 million pounds of ground beef, the largest of its kind in history and which included beef distributed through the National School Lunch Program; or the 2006 recall of E. coli-contaminated bagged spinach that sickened hundreds in 26 states.

There's a common theme underlying all of these food disasters. Each case involved one company processing or selling an ungodly amount of product to retailers and consumers across the country. This phenomenon is called "concentration," or the control of a market by a small number of companies. And it's come to our food system at a pace rivaling the takeover of our airwaves by reality TV shows.

The local foods movement is not so much about choosing between what's grown here and what's grown elsewhere. It's about having any sort of choice at all.

I live in the Bay Area, where our year-round growing season and ample supply of farmers markets make it relatively easy for me to access food grown by much smaller, local farmers. I suppose that makes me a locavore. But when I buy local food, energy use is not the driving rationale (no pun intended). I buy from a variety of local farms when at all possible because if I don't, I will probably be eating from a stream of food that has passed through the hands of a tiny number of massive companies. And if those companies' hands have salmonella all over them, well -- look out, world.

The two companies involved in last week's egg recall were relatively small as far as these things go, controlling only about 1 percent of the U.S. egg supply. In contrast, virtually our entire meat supply is controlled by four -- soon to be three -- companies: Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield, and the Brazilian powerhouse JBS, which is vying for a Smithfield takeover. (Grist's Tom Philpott does the meat math here.) Cargill and two other companies process more than 70 percent of U.S. soybeans, which are in turn fed to livestock and added to processed food products as soy lecithin and other ingredients. And most of our corn -- a staple in livestock feed and present in virtually all processed food -- is grown from seed developed by one of two companies.

What does it mean when so few companies control so much of our food? It means that unless we happen to live in a place with a lot of local farmers and the infrastructure to process and distribute their products, we have virtually no control over what we're eating or feeding to our kids. If these companies choose to raise meat using hormones and antibiotics (and they do), or grow corn from genetically-modified seed (and they do), then that's what we'll have access to. And if one thing goes wrong at one of those companies, we all risk being affected.

So here's my message to Mr. Budiansky: The local foods movement is not so much about choosing between what's grown here and what's grown elsewhere. It's about having any sort of choice at all.

Here in California, where most of the nation's retail spinach and lettuce is grown, Fresh Express bagged salad mixes could be considered local, using the metrics laid down by Budiansky. But if I have a choice, I won't buy their products. With one other company, they control some 80 percent of the market for bagged greens. In the last three months, their products have been recalled on three separate occasions for listeria, salmonella, and E. coli contamination. According to FDA data crunched by the Community Alliance for Family Farmers, nearly 99 percent of all food-safety outbreaks related to leafy greens have come from bagged products like the ones Fresh Express produces: greens that are washed in massive vats with tons of other greens, put in sealed plastic bags, and transported over long distances to supermarkets around the country.

Luckily, I have other choices, so the phrase "vote with your fork" actually applies to me. Elsewhere, consumers are not so lucky. That's why, as locavores work to re-democratize, diversify, and decentralize the food system, exercising actual democracy -- getting involved in the policies that shape our food system -- becomes so important. We can't buy our way out of the problem if we don't have any choice about what we buy.


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