by Coach Mark Smallwood, executive director at Rodale Institute
Have you ever wondered how anyone makes any money on a $2.00 bag of nacho-cheese–flavored corn chips or a $0.25 apple? Economists and policy wonks have been talking about how we privatize profits and socialize loss here in the U.S. for at least a decade. If your eyes glazed over when you read that, you are not alone. Unfortunately, we can’t afford to ignore how this big picture idea affects each and every one of us. What does it mean for Main Street America?
The way we grow our nation’s food is the perfect snapshot of this concept. Organic activists and locavores have also been talking about the same concept for just as long, if not longer: the hidden costs of cheap, industrial food.
We have a system of predatory agriculture in which corporations (aka Big Ag) pursue private gain relentlessly, regardless of the social consequences. To bring it closer to home, social consequences can be defined as anything from polluting our water, land, and air to impacting the health of our families to rendering the business of farming economically unsustainable.
Costs such as environmental degradation, declining health, and economic insecurity aren’t reflected in the price tag because they aren’t included in corporate budgets. This is one big reason why there are plenty of profits to be made in toxic agricultural chemicals, junk food, and GMOs. But these costs are in fact a burden on us all. And, as every parent tries to teach his or her children, actions have consequences.
All the garbage that allows Big Ag to make obscene profits is left to our communities to clean up. Take, for example, the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico’s dead zones. Although caused in part by the overuse of synthetic fertilizers and poorly timed applications of raw manures and biosolids, the negative effects and the “tab” for cleanup are picked up by the American public.
We are what we eat, and we are carrying the costs of corporate greed. In the private profit/social loss equation, farmers lose, consumers lose, and communities lose.
But life cycle or true cost accounting when it comes to our food system is a numbers nightmare. How do we weigh and measure things like erosion, chemical leaching, and run-off, or loss of pollinators like the honeybee and other biodiversity? How do we make a solid connection between food production/consumption and the insidious health impacts of chronic, low-dose exposure to agricultural chemicals and our obesity epidemic?
In a global summit last December whose goal was to “investigate why our current economic system makes it more profitable to produce food in ways that damage the environment and human health, instead of rewarding methods of production that deliver benefits,” world leaders recognized that not all agricultural systems are created equal. Farming that not only sustains status quo, but also creates a healthier environment is possible. “Some farming methods have public benefit,” wrote Dan Imhoff in his coverage of the summit.
Luckily, it doesn’t take a global summit or a panel of researchers to figure out what to do: We need to support the organic farmers who are creating a public benefit. It isn’t just about growing more, bigger, faster. It’s about nourishing ourselves and our families, our communities, and the farmers who choose to feed all of us rather than feed the corporate beast.
“Coach” Mark Smallwood has been dedicated to environmental sustainability, efficiency, and conservation for decades. Since joining Rodale Institute in December 2010, he has brought heritage livestock back to the institute’s 333-acre farm, expanded and enhanced its research efforts, and launched Your 2 Cents, a national campaign to support and promote new organic farmers. In recognition for his sustainability efforts, Coach was chosen as a messenger for Al Gore’s Climate Project, presenting to more than 15,000 people on the effects of global warming. Last, but certainly not least, as a longtime organic farmer and biodynamic gardener, Coach has raised chickens, goats, sheep, and pigs and has driven a team of oxen.