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Spoiled: Organic and Local Is So 2008

Our industrial food system is rotten to the core. Heirloom arugula won't save us. Here's what will.

in the end, winning over skeptical consumers won't be enough. Given the reality of what consumers can and can't do, market liberalizers' enduring fantasy—that the collective power of tens of millions of conscientious shoppers will force suppliers to correct their bad practices—has been replaced by a grimmer understanding: Until we can make the market see all the costs of unsustainable farming, and until we learn how to temper its obsessive focus on ever greater efficiencies, market-driven sustainability will fail. This reality became evident last August, after Whole Foods recalled ground beef due to an E. coli scare. The problem was that Whole Foods' supplier, Coleman Natural Beef, processed its meat at Nebraska Beef, a large, low-cost plant infamous for health violations (including a 5-million-pound beef recall in July for E. coli). In essence, Whole Foods sought to create a new value—sustainability—without changing the supply chain.

If we're going to ask the market to pull in a new direction, we'll need to give it new rules and incentives. That means our broader food standards, but it also means money—a massive increase in food research. (Today, the fraction of the federal research budget spent on anything remotely resembling alternative agriculture is less than 1 percent—and most of that is sucked up by the organic sector.) And, yes, it means more farm subsidies: The reason federal farm subsidies are regarded as anti-sustainability is mainly because they support the wrong kind of farming. But if we want the right kind of farming, we're going to have to support those farmers willing to risk trying a new model. For example, one reason farmers prefer labor-saving monoculture is that it frees them to take an off-farm job, which for many is the only way to get health insurance. Thus, the simplest way to encourage sustainable farming might be offering a subsidy for affordable health care.

We'll also need potent new incentives on the demand side of the equation. Sustainable food products make up only about 2 percent of our food supply in no small part because consumer demand is soft. Yes, some will pay extra for organic or local food. But for most consumers, the costs quickly exceed the tangible benefits—especially as food prices have climbed.

Given that we're not seeing spontaneous consumer demand (even after decades of consumer education by advocacy groups), we must create it via government procurement programs. Federal agencies and food programs are among the biggest purchasers of food in the world. If they didn't buy solely from the lowest-cost bidder, as they're now required to, but could instead source from local or organic producers, or farmers practicing polyculture, this massive new customer would remake American agriculture in a heartbeat. "If someone like the Department of Defense or even the VA hospitals changed how they purchased, it would be huge," says Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

But would it be sufficient? Or does sustainable food simply cost too much to be feasible? After all, industrial food is cheap not only because of the efficiencies of scale and technologies, but also because the industrial system is so good at ignoring, or externalizing, costs such as ecological degradation or poor nutrition or underpaid labor. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the hidden costs of conventional meat production alone are huge—each year, salmonella outbreaks cost an estimated $2.5 billion; properly cleaning up manure leaks would cost at least $4 billion. If our food system reinternalizes such costs—say, by shifting from feedlots to a less concentrated free-range model—food prices will rise. Grass-fed cattle can take twice as long to reach slaughter weight as corn-fed cattle and require more pastureland at a time when pastureland is in short supply—which is why grass-fed beef costs about 30 percent more than conventional beef.

Does that matter? Most Americans could afford to spend more for their food—or could afford to eat less of the resource-intensive foods. It's no coincidence that Americans, who spend less than a dime of every dollar on food—the least in the world—also consume about 200 pounds of meat per capita each year—the most in the world. But in many other parts of the world, spending more on food or cutting back on meat aren't practical or ethical options; nor are investing in vertical farms, store-top produce, or many of the other more Earth-friendly but more capital-intensive farming technologies. As Iowa State's Liebman notes, the resources for sustainable farming—not only adequate soil and water, but access to capital, technology, and market—aren't distributed fairly or evenly, which means the chances for "finding solutions in Iowa are probably a lot higher than in the Sahel."

This disparity underlines what ultimately may be the most critical question about the future of food. We may be certain that the existing food system is broken. We may also be confident that we can develop a more sustainable replacement. What we're still waiting to find out is whether sustainability is something we'll all benefit from, or whether it, too, will go to the highest bidder.

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