I’ve done my fair share of industrial farmer bashing. But, I have come to believe that the planetary damage caused by agriculture is as much a product of consumerism as it is the evils of large farm operations. If that’s the case, should more of our energy be directed into consumer education rather than protest of agribusiness? Shouldn’t as much effort go into telling consumers to stop buying crappy food as in telling farmers to stop tilling the soil?
Yesterday, I listened to a podcast that featured a British economist, a British environmentalist, and Wendell Berry. As I digested what they all were saying, my thoughts evolved about the power of agribusiness companies, the power of farmers, and the power of purchasing consumers. Listening to the discussion caused me to see those three powers on a triangular balancing scale of sorts and I contemplated which was “heavier.”
I came away not thinking about the limits of growth, which was a primary theme of the podcast. The interviews spurred me to hone my thoughts more about these three respective powers of influence.
Compared to the other two, the power of the farmer is limited at best. Many farmers would say they are essentially powerless to define what food we eat, often describing their feelings of being trapped. Yet, when I consider the purchasing consumer and their impact on the food we eat, I see a different force. I believe consumers far outweigh the other two influences on food choices.
I’m not taking a position denying the power of Bayer or Monsanto or the American Dairy Association – the latter of which is far more powerful than people realize. Associations, such as the ADA, spend hundreds of millions of dollars to position their products to the consumer. Remember the “Got Milk” campaign? Chemical and seed companies realized just how little influence they have over consumer purchasing so they worked their efforts through regulation and controlling the governing bodies that provide oversight for agriculture.
Notwithstanding successful public relations campaigns, even the almighty ADA is not as powerful as consumers choosing to buy one thing and not another. Yes, consumers can be influenced. Billions of dollars of advertising revenue is testament to that. Yet farmers, ag companies, and associations cannot force a consumer to spend their income on one kind of food over another.
Here’s an example. The Flavr Savr tomato of 1994 was hailed as a break through and had the FDA blessing to take it to market as the first genetically modified food to be sold in stores in the U.S. It had the promise of better tolerating shipping and not getting squishy by the time it got to produce departments. However, due to many factors, the American consumer simply didn’t find the tasteless tomato worthy of their hard-earned dollars. Even tomato paste made from this tomato for the United Kingdom market quickly fizzled. The consuming public simply chose not to buy no matter how much agribiz and public relations campaigns tried to influence. The company that developed the tomato eventually sold out to Monsanto as a result of the unrealized potential.
This example, among thousands we can point to in failed food product launches, is a primary indicator that the consumer has the real power. If coalesced into a unified force, for whatever reason, the buying American has power far beyond farmers, seed companies, chemical companies, the FDA, the USDA, and associations.
So, what’s the problem? The Western consumer has chosen convenience over quality, ease over nutrition – and we’re paying for it in ever escalating costs of healthcare and a seemingly continual slide into diet-related disease rates that are epidemic in scale.
The explosion of the supermarket following WW2 and the increasingly mobile family meant that kitchens and households began to operate differently. The whole frozen TV dinner mentality quickly and easily took hold in generations of people who eschewed their parents’ and grandparents’ way of sourcing food and eating seasonally. By the late 1950s, supermarkets were pushing small grocers out of small towns and neighborhoods. The rise of the supermarket meant buying from larger suppliers which exacerbated the need for farmers to get bigger or get out, a common cry coming from the USDA during this era.
The bottom line was Americans, and many of their European equals, changed their purchasing habits based on convenience and just assumed the good will of those upstream in the food chain to produce wholesome healthful food. We were duped.
I strongly believe we can change the face of agriculture, even at large scale, if the American consumer collectively refused to buy poor-quality food, food that was transported more than 250 miles, food that was produced without a fair return for the producer and food free from transgenic manipulation. I know the economics of the industry would shift if the dollars shifted. When the boom of the farmers’ market exploded in the last 10 years, grocery stores adapted and started selling local produce. Why, because the choices consumers were making forced grocery chains to make this change.
We have the power, not Bayer, not Monsanto, not the USDA, not the American Dairy Association. Those of us who purchase food have the power to define what food we eat, how it’s produced, and its quality. We only need to wake the sleeping giant.