Smart Food Choices: A response to Former Secretary of Agriculture John Block

On December 23, 2012, Former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture John Block asked:

“Do we want a smart, sophisticated approach to food supply that we can depend on for safety, healthy choices, environmental stewardship and long-term sustainability? Or do we want to return to food shortages, higher prices and the days of two horses pulling a corn planter?” 

“Reality Check for Organic Food Dreamers” Wall Street Journal, Dec 23, 2012.

An excellent question and the answer is: YES, without a doubt, food should to be safe from field to fork.

But, the scope and size of large scale industrial farming in the United States is not safe. Here is a sampling of food safety headlines from 2012: the fourth case of Mad Cow disease was identified in the U.S. meat system;  spinach was recalled in 18 states for salmonella poisoning;  and at least 33 people in 5 states were sickened by packaged salad greens contaminated with E. coli. In 2011, we had the most deadly food borne illness outbreak in a century.” In fact, an informal survey of the most deadly food borne illnesses over the past century shows 5 of the 10 deadliest outbreaks occurred since the end of World War II, the point most historians cite as the start of our industrialized food system.

Our farming system has become highly industrialized and consolidated in the pursuit of efficiency. According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota,and Indiana account for 49 percent of the total value of sales for US farmed grains, oilseeds, and pulse crops. Corn accounted for $39.9 billion and 52 percent of sales, while soy accounted for 26% and wheat counted for 14%. Interestingly, “[t]here are more refined grains and added fats, oils and sugars in our food than there were 30 years ago.” At some point, we must ask if this is simply coincidence or there is a deeper correlation.

Corn, soy, and wheat production account for nearly 206 million acres of land. Not surprisingly, they are also the three most subsidized agricultural products, accounting for more than 60 percent of subsidies.

How is this sort of food system environmentally, socially, or economically sustainable?

Choosing to buy foods from local sources can provide a necessary and vital source of income to that 62 percent of farmers who don’t get subsidies, providing financial incentive and reward to those farmers to produce safe and healthy food.

There’s no question that we all want a food system that is safe, transparent, and sustainable. But we also want this system to provide access to and support all farmers, regardless of their product or size. Our current system, the one Mr. Block helped establish while at USDA, does not accomplish these goals. Instead, the system supports industrial farming that is unsafe, food production that is potentially unhealthy, and a system that is not socially, economically, or environmentally sustainable.

Gabriel Key is a European trained chef who now works on using technology to address food issues and support local sustainable food and farming.

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