Food insecurity is largely driven by a food system that is highly controlled by agribusiness. But there’s a better way.

October 16, 2017

Friends, last week I listened to a story about a food rescue start-up.  At the end, there was a critique by a local farmer also connected with food distribution, who said it might be a good way to make money and keep food from being discarded but the heart of the problem here is our food system.  He said, right now we have a system (of grocery stores) based on not being out of anything, ever.  This means, new, large volumes are coming in constantly, displacing what is on the shelves.  This food has to go somewhere and often it is thrown away.

Below the story by the wonderful organization, CIDSE, is a bit on Food Maven and Food Rescue story above.  Also see statement at the bottom, signed by 210 organizations (you can sign too!) on changing the system. See Principles for a Fairer Farm Bill, by Bob Gronski, Catholic Rural Life.


Agroecology works, writes Gauthier, but in order for its promise to thrive, it will need supportive policies. (Photo: David Costa)

What we need is a profound and radical transformation, or dare we say, conversion of the world food system. Around the world, people are migrating within and across borders, and for many of them, hunger and food insecurity are driving them. We know that climate change, conflict, and political instability are adversely affecting food security, but if communities are still facing hunger today it is because of the flawed and damaging way in which we produce and distribute food around the world. Indeed, at the heart of the problem, and perhaps the solution, is our very relationship to food and the land it grows on.

Food insecurity is largely driven by a food system that is highly controlled by agribusiness, believed to be the only model capable of producing large volumes of food – and waste. But more food is not the same as less hunger!

The figures are clear: in 2016 the number of undernourished people in the world came to an estimated 815 million—from 777 million people in 2015. In addition, 75% of the world’s poor rely on agriculture and natural resources for their livelihoods yet, despite this, they are also the most food insecure, leading many to migrate to urban areas or other countries in search for better living conditions with great uncertainty for their own and their children’s futures. Hunger is not diminishing, it is increasing. We must tackle its root causes, not increase production.

“In different contexts around the world, agroecology has demonstrated the potential to increase productivity, yields and biodiversity; revitalize damaged soils, improve health and nutrition, enhance resilience and cohesion in communities while addressing climate change.”

The question is, how do we move from this worrying prospect? We must make a radical change. The most difficult change is perhaps viewing the wealth and resources of this planet, not as commodities at our disposal, but as other living organisms with which we must interact and share the earth, our common home. As Pope Francis’ Laudato Si Encyclical reminds, “Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies.”

Why agroecology? We need a system and policies that enable people and small-scale farmers to access land, seeds and resources. We need to create the conditions that can allow rural communities to work, flourish and live. Agroecology offers us access to a truly sustainable food system and radically transforms how we understand and practice food production and consumption.

Agroecology works. In different contexts around the world, agroecology has demonstrated the potential to increase productivity, yields and biodiversity; revitalize damaged soils, improve health and nutrition, enhance resilience and cohesion in communities while addressing climate change. It not only revitalizes ecosystems, but also communities, as it empowers farmers and peasants, especially women. It also brings consumers closer to farmers and the food they eat, challenging current practices, by reconnecting us to local and seasonal produce and restoring our relationship to nature. These are essential ingredients for vibrant, sustainable, and just communities, where every person and every ecosystem counts and flourishes.  

But in order for agroecology to thrive, it will need supportive policies. Nevertheless, while leaders have signed and committed to the Paris Agreement and Agenda 2030 to tackle our most pressing challenges, we see an ever increasing concentration in the agribusiness sector, as two recent mergers—Syngenta-ChemChina and Dow Chemical-DuPont—show, limiting access, reducing small-scale farmer’s autonomy, weakening the social fabric of their communities, affecting our health and the planet.

Unfortunately, instead of supporting innovative practices such as Agroecology, false solutions such as ‘Climate-smart agriculture’ and other high-tech based solutions, continue to be favored by policy makers and big business. Behind such initiatives, what keeps being promoted is a food system dominated by large-scale industrial agriculture and monocultures that rely heavily on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, making the agricultural sector a high GHG emitter. We already experience biodiversity loss, soil erosion and devastating yield losses in case of extreme weather across the world – it’s therefore a dangerous mix in the face of climate driven impacts.  

This is why we share these stories, as widely as possible, building on the experiences and on the work that has been carried out by social movements, farmer and peasant organizations, civil society and academics across the world to develop the concept of agroecology. At CIDSE, we have engaged in the process of both clarifying what agroecology means, in order to avoid cooptation and misuse of the term by proposers of the  status-quo, and to join like-minded organizations and movements in the fight against false solutions, while putting into practice true alternatives.

This year’s World Food Day focuses on the interlinkages between food (in)security and migration but unless we name and address the true root causes of injustice, food insecurity and the climate crises, and hold up solutions that take into account the well-being of people, the respect for their human dignity and the protection of our ecosystems, we cannot make the type of deep transformation that is needed.

Josianne Gauthier is CIDSE Secretary General since September 2017. Before this, she was the Director of the In-Canada Programs at Development and Peace – Caritas Canada heading the awareness-raising, fundraising, public education, and advocacy campaign work carried out by the organization in Canada for the past four years.


Colorado Public Radio

A 2014 U.S. Department of Agriculture report found that 35 to 40 percent of all the food produced every year gets thrown away.

More than a third of the food produced in the U.S. ends up in landfills every year; a result of overproduction to meet the grocery industry’s need to keep stores fully stocked. If customers don’t find what they’re looking for, they’ll go elsewhere.

The only way to make sure you have enough for those customers is to have too much on hand. Whatever isn’t sold is often sent to the dump by grocers and food distributors.

Dan Lewis and Patrick Bultema saw this as an opportunity — and FoodMaven was born. It’s a for-profit business that distributes the oversupply of food to restaurants, school cafeterias, and other institutional kitchens at half price.

As Bultema sees it, everyone wins. For his suppliers, the overstock becomes revenue “they were going to lose, that they were going to pay to dispose of. And for our buyers, it’s a great value.”

Bultema and Lewis started the company together two years ago while working with a nonprofit food rescue organization. They were shocked by all the waste they saw. Standing by a dumpster near a Colorado Springs big box store, Dan Lewis also recalls another piece for their food waste experience: A summer spent after college salvaging food.

You know, dumpster diving.

“Looks like we’ve got some broccoli, and apples, some peppers, a lot of leafy greens we might not be able to use, but could definitely make a good stir fry,” he says from inside the bin.

Filling a brown paper grocery sack, Lewis estimates a bag of produce like this would cost up to $50. It was in dumpsters like this that he began to see a much larger problem in the food system.

“This is not bad food,” he says. “It didn’t meet some type of cut or somebody’s standard, or it’s just oversupplied and ended up in this bin.”

That’s just a tiny fraction of the 133 billion tons of food that gets dumped into landfills every year. That’s according to a 2014 U.S. Department of Agriculture report that finds 35 to 40 percent of all the food produced every year gets thrown away.

“The truth of the matter is that it’s perfectly good food that’s just getting lost in the system and tragically ends up as waste, but really doesn’t need to be,” says Lewis’ partner, Patrick Bultema.

Their company receives the oversupply food on commission. A percentage of anything sold goes back to the original producer. The goal is to keep all of it out of the landfill.

The way it works is pretty simple: When a grocery store or a distributor has an oversupply, FoodMaven sends trucks to pick it up. They warehouse it, inventory it, and upload the inventory to a website where restaurant owners or institutional kitchens can place their orders.

Nina Lee, owner of the 503 WEST restaurant in downtown Colorado Springs, regularly places orders for organic chicken breasts from FoodMaven. Her place, like many restaurants, has limited distributors to choose from. That’s why she welcomes the variety and prices FoodMaven offers.  “It was, by far, the best deal,” she says.

Not everyone’s convinced that FoodMaven’s business model will create healthy competition in the market or address the oversupply problem. Count independent Colorado Springs rancher, meat processor and food distributor Mike Callicrate as a skeptic.  “Gimme something for free and let me sell it at half its former value… No one makes that kind of margin in the food business,” he says.

An advocate for local food, Callicrate wants the food system to move toward a model of production and distribution that puts more money into the hands of farmers and ranchers. He doesn’t see the FoodMaven model as addressing the problem, but rather a way to profit from the situation.

Others like Doug Wiley, president of the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers co-op and a farmer and rancher himself, are taking a wait and see approach.

Wiley says oversupply is a big problem for small ranchers and growers, too. He hopes that Lewis and Bultema’s business might open new markets.

“The way I think of it is that it’s another outlet that I could possibly utilize,” he says. “You know, I’ve been just giving it away.”

FoodMaven hopes to go national in the next five years. The next step is to test their business model in a major market, like Denver, where they’re scheduled to open in the summer. 

Principles for a Fairer Farm Bill, by Bob Gronski, Catholic Rural Life

Catholic Rural Life is collaborating with a broad-based coalition of 210 farm, rural, worker and consumer advocacy organizations to address the lack of competition in our nation’s agriculture and food system.

As a first step, the coalition sent a letter to the U.S. Congress that detailed Principles for a Fairer Farm Bill. The letter, delivered October 4, was directed to leaders of the Senate and House agriculture committees, which are holding hearings and listening sessions for a new Farm Bill. The current bill expires September of next year.

The Farm Bill is a multi-year law that sets federal policies and funding levels for various nutrition, agricultural, and rural development programs. This important legislation provides a “safety net” to farmers and families who require economic assistance or natural disaster relief. Rural and urban families across the nation benefit from these protections and policies.

The coalition letter made key points about the impacts of consolidation – fewer and larger corporations – in the agribusiness, food processing and supermarket industries: 1. lower prices for farmers; 2. lower wages for farmworkers and other food chain workers; 3. erosion of rural economies; and 4. higher prices while limiting choices for consumers.

The letter calls on Congress to confront the ongoing consolidation of agribusiness and food processing industries, along with addressing unfair production contracts for farmers and the lack of market transparency for price discovery.

The coalition letter advocates the following:

  • Enhancement of anti-trust enforcement in agriculture and food sector.
  • An end to manipulation of livestock markets.
  • A re-gaining of contract farmers’ control of their farms and livelihoods.
  • Market transparency for the benefit producers and consumers.
  • An enhancement of worker rights protections and enforcement in agriculture and food sector.

“Corporate consolidation is the worst it has ever been in our nation’s history,” said Roger Johnson, president of National Farmers Union. In a press statement released along with the letter to Congress, Johnson went on to say:

A handful of multinational companies control our inputs sector, and just four meatpackers dominate the cattle industry. Yet, as these industries and others consolidate market power into the hands of a few, the federal government continues to rubber stamp more and more mergers. If we want a country where family farmers, ranchers, and rural residents can enjoy the same economic liberty and prosperity as the rest of the country, we must address this enormous domestic policy threat to the livelihoods of these people.

The letter to Congress describes how meatpackers control livestock markets with practices including packer-owned livestock, contracts and marketing agreements that are susceptible to manipulation and vertical integration. These tools allow large meat companies to exert unfair market power over farmers and ranchers, lowering the prices they receive, while consumer prices continue to rise.

CRL continues to advocate for family farms.  “Family farm agriculture is an economic and cultural cornerstone in America,” states Greg Fogel, Policy Director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Increasingly, however, our small and medium-scale farms are disappearing while corporate agribusinesses rapidly grow and consolidate. Without a fair playing field, these corporations can easily drive out family farmers, or relegate them to working within opaque and unfair contract systems. We need to bring equity and efficiency back to our agricultural markets. We cannot continue to allow agricultural consolidation to grow unchecked at the expense of our nation’s family farmers, natural resources, and the American taxpayer.

The letter calls on Congress to ensure the 2018 Farm Bill addresses the “negative trends in agricultural market control and anti-competitive business structures if we are to have any hope of restoring the economic health of rural America.”

Let us continue to advocate, support, and pray for family farms.  Click here for prayers for rural families.

Robert Gronski is a Consultant for Catholic Rural Life. He tracks policy perspectives on food, farm, environmental, and rural community issues and helps frame these within the perspective of Catholic Social Teaching.

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