From Seed to Table

The topic of eating animals is never a wholly comfortable one for those who embrace the principles of the Green Party. Many Greens are vegetarians and vegans, and all oppose inhumane, cruel, and environmentally unsound methods of factory farming. All Greens want a better and more sensible food system, from seed to table. But there are so many humans to feed, and we also want everyone fed and cared for, cradle to grave.

We sometimes have to draw difficult lines between what we favor in principle and how we are limited by circumstances to live our current lives. Perhaps you know it already, but there are not many wealthy Greens. Most live (by their own choice, often) on very modest means and they are, in my experience, generous beyond belief with what little they do have. But they often (indeed usually) have difficulty affording environmentally sustainable agricultural products. Our twisted economic habits, driven by mass-scale corporate farming, have made the food that is best for us and for our environment more expensive than food that is damaging to our health and the earth. But many people of conscience simply rearrange their budgets, go without other things, and buy the more expensive, healthier food.

You should be curious about your food when, in real terms, the stuff that costs more to produce also costs less to buy at the grocery store. Someone somewhere is paying the difference. And that is the rub. Some of the cost is paid through your taxes in widespread subsidies to corporate farming—essentially corporate welfare. If this were only a matter of incentives for the right levels of production to keep prices reasonable for all concerned, that would be one thing. But that situation has not existed for decades (if it ever really did). Corporate interests use subsidies to keep prices low enough that they can make money by volume and by export while keeping the prices too low for small-scale farmers (the family farm) to stay in business. But farmers are a tenacious breed of human being and many have hung on, in one way or another –many farming at a loss while working other jobs to pay the bills. So, you’ve been paying taxes that are used to put family farms out of business, and you’ve been doing it for decades.

Some of the cost is borne by the environment itself, and our poorer health. Large-scale farming is wasteful and toxic and depends upon every trick in the book to cut costs while increasing yields. Some of these tricks are good science, and could be used to everyone’s advantage. But such technologies are often patented and vigorously protected, benefitting the few and not ordinary citizens. But many tricks are not good science; they are techniques (from financing schemes to gene-splicing) for cutting costs and increasing yields that are short-sighted, unsustainable, and often destructive. Under no circumstances is a technique automatically to be incorporated into mass farming just because it reduces competition or enhances the bottom line of corporations. If those chicken breasts look too large to you to be real, you should ask how they got so big and whether it is wise to eat them.

Farmers of the future, large and small, in making their decisions about which techniques genuinely lead to better products, will need to tend the land, which means assessing how those decisions impact the environment:  the water, the soil, and the air. They must consider this broader cost when bringing products to market. And we must make it financially possible for farmers to do this and still get a living. These costs must also include the effects of using fossil fuels and pesticides to increase yields. We must give farmers incentives to use renewable energy systems in farming, and to make the fullest use of by-products and “waste” (which need not even exist, as has been proven on any number of waste-free farms; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero_waste_agriculture).

The sad truth is that the food you think you can’t afford is, in real terms (including environmental costs), far cheaper to produce than the tax-subsidized, environment-destroying, mass-produced products so prominent at your grocery store. The situation facing you at the grocery store is a system that hands you an illusion about how much it really costs for you to eat. Buying the more expensive, locally produced, environmentally sound food is actually “cheaper,” if one considers real costs, as distinct from mere “prices.” The difference in price at the store and real cost is being paid by your tax dollars, by living in poorer health and degraded environmental quality in the present, and by your children and grandchildren, who will be obliged to deal with climate change and the other results of this temporary “price party” we are enjoying at the moment. The global climate is being heavily affected by the use of fossil fuels and other greenhouse gases in mass-scale farming. Some scientists believe that current farming practices are responsible for a greater share in causing climate change than are our personal automobiles. (See the links included in this article: https://www.ecowatch.com/how-factory-farming-contributes-to-global-warming-1881690535.html)

What should you eat, then, if you care? I suggest that you do all in your power to eat locally, and all the more so if you can find sustainably raised produce and meat. Local products don’t have to be shipped and trucked to you. Sustainably raised local products will preserve your quality of life. Granted, it is an ideal, but improving our lives requires changing our daily behavior, one by one. Consider reorganizing your household budget with an eye to the real costs of eating. Do not support large corporations in your purchases. Their carbon footprint is enormous and deep, and the profits are not staying in your community. You impoverish yourself by well more than a dollar every time you give a dollar to Monsanto.

Government plays a role that the individual citizen, and even tight communities, cannot undertake alone. Government must work toward a regulatory framework that, on one side, insures everyone has enough healthy food to eat, and, on the other side, insures that the real costs to raise food are reflected in market prices. We are paying through the backdoor for what ought to be the front-door price. Food costs and prices must be balanced and distributed according to a fair and transparent system. Such a system will make it easier for small-scale producers and sustainably raised food to compete. But that is not enough. Government must favor and support sustainably raised food growers, giving them credit for the reduced costs in the better health of citizens and the environment; the government must oblige mass-scale producers to share the environmental and health costs of raising food by unsustainable (and even toxic) methods. These are the goals I will work for in Congress.

It must be added that artificially low oil prices, such as we enjoy in the US, are a part of that calculation. Americans are currently paying about 57 cents per liter for gasoline. Europeans are paying four times that amount and Chinese citizens are paying closer to eight times that amount. Our energy policy and our foreign policy are deeply intertwined with our agricultural policy. The global situation and the US economy do depend on exports of food from US producers, and unhappily, we do not always maintain the same standards for what we feed to others as compared with what we feed ourselves. The growing and consumption markets must be considered together when creating wise and fair regulations of our agricultural industries, and agricultural labor policy is a part of that broader picture. It is hypocritical to feed others what we would not eat ourselves.

I believe it is possible for our farmers to make comfortable profits while acting wisely and ethically, but corporatized farming is not set up for either wisdom or morality. It is organized largely for the sake of profit alone. That way of doing business must be discouraged. Business is an ethical endeavor. As a consumer, tax-payer, and citizen, you can help with encouraging businesses to be ethical by spending your dollars on better, healthier food raised locally. That is actually in your self-interest. But government must have the will and adopt the purpose of rewarding those who act wisely and not encouraging those who act foolishly, especially where profit is the primary motive.

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