There are no unicorns, and there are no unicorn foods. This was the analogy given by an agricultural economist speaking on a panel about the future of our food system in reference to the fact that we as humans have multiple, and sometimes conflicting, values and needs that cannot be met by one perfect food. Since no one food, or one food system, is likely to live up to meet all of our needs, we ultimately need to make decisions and prioritize what is most important to us. Personally, I have oscillated through periods of shopping at farmers’ markets and supporting local food systems, and also periods of relying on grocery store chains to deliver the most convenient and economical source of daily sustenance. After the book Dark Money, by Jane Mayer, landed on my reading list this past summer, my commitment to community-based food systems once again strengthened as I reflected on the themes of self-determination and economic diversity.
Dark money is a detailed history that tells the story of a wealthy network of capitalists who have organized and funded a strategy to promote a neoliberal policy agenda aiming to capture the state and impose a new order around corporate interests. This strategy is designed by powerful business leaders to influence public opinion in support of policies that seek to privatize public goods, erode environmental and safety regulations, and suppress wages and labor rights, ultimately boosting corporate wealth and power at the expense of the public. Organizations, like the Koch Foundation, use their tax-exempt foundations to channel money to tax-exempt non-profits that champion their cause through research, advocacy, and public education. Or, as Kari Polanyi Levitt and Mario Seccareccia put it in their erudite commentary on the subject, these foundations foster the “proliferation of neoliberal think-tanks and other such lobby groups, often masquerading as research institutes that can hijack government policies at the local and national levels and end up almost as in camera advisors to elected representatives.”
This brings me back to our food system. Our predominate, commodity-based, food system has contributed to a dietary pattern disproportionately skewed toward a handful of artificially low-priced foods, namely wheat, corn, and processed meat products. Even within types of foods, variety has decreased. The varieties of cabbage grown, for instance, have decreased from 544 in 1903 to just 28 in 1983. In part, this has to do with innovation in seed production that provides farmers greater certainty in the quality of their product. But it is also the effect of a more highly consolidated food system that demands homogeneity in appearance and transport hardiness. All of this is associated with negative impacts on public health. While this system is arguably highly efficient in delivering calories, it is limited and fragile in its ability to provide workers with a living wage and ensure access to a diverse range of appropriate foods for large segments of the population. Further, its resilience over the long-term is questionable.
Resiliency in the food system consists of three key dimensions: (1) the diversity of the food system’s components, (2) the degree to which the components are connected, and (3) the degree of decision-making autonomy within the food system. Significant consolidation of the food system decreases the diversity of its components, including the varieties of foods grown, production methods, distribution channels, employment options for workers. Alternatively, community-based food systems support a wider base of farmers and value-added producers. These smaller, more diverse, networks increase farmer autonomy while building sustained relationships and shared responsibility for investing in the health and prosperity of the community. For example, the New South Produce Cooperative and Grassroots Farmer’s Cooperative in Arkansas connect members to distribution networks, provide technical assistance, and help small farmers raise capital as a collective. This wider base of producers also leads to more diversity in crop varieties, production methods, and employment options that are adapted to local conditions and cultures.
If degree of decision-making autonomy among a broad base of producers is a key component of a resilient food system, this brings us back to reflecting on the systematic erosion of public voice resulting from the extreme neoliberal agenda described in Dark Money. Because of the substantial wealth large food companies have accumulated in relation to workers and consumers, they now have a more influential political voice than the majority of citizens. Eroding the impact of citizens’ political voice creates a more controlled environment in which farmers and other food producers may find themselves with limited autonomy over their production and distribution decisions. With limited competition in the industry and few places to look for more favorable contracts, more and more decisions are instead dictated by corporate interests (whether or not it is beneficial for the farmer or local community). Operating under such conditions leaves the base of our food system vulnerable to shocks, disincentivizes innovation, and makes it difficult to adopt beneficial practices critical for adaptation.
When an industry becomes too concentrated and competition is diminished, politically powerful companies tend to rely on “special political privileges” rather than invest in the human, social and financial capital creation to build the adaptive capacity required for innovation, ultimately hindering their resiliency and ability to consistently provide stable levels of appropriate foods to the public. Farmers’ markets and locally-owned shops may not prove to be the most efficient way to produce and distribute food. But it can be an efficient way to produce and distribute a portion of our food if we re-define efficiency to account for alternative values like autonomy, civic participation, fairness, and long-term resiliency. So, at least for now, I’ve once again circled back to grocery shopping at farmers’ markets and local shops like my right to self-determination and democracy depend on it.