Math lessons for Budiansky: Industrial concentration vs. local choice

On Friday, New York Times op-ed contributor Steven Budiansky challenged local food advocates to rethink their math, mainly about food miles. As it happens, I was already doing some food calculations that day — but not of the sort Budiansky discussed.

My numbers included the following: As of Friday, 450 million eggs originating from two Iowa egg operations — both of which buy feed and chicks from the same company — had been recalled from stores in 14 states for salmonella contamination. These days, record-breaking food recalls are happening with disturbing frequency. We won’t soon forget the 2009 peanut recall that affected nearly 4,000 products; the 2008 recall of 143 million pounds of ground beef, the largest of its kind in history and which included beef distributed through the National School Lunch Program; or the 2006 recall of E. coli-contaminated bagged spinach that sickened hundreds in 26 states.

There’s a common theme underlying all of these food disasters. Each case involved one company processing or selling an ungodly amount of product to retailers and consumers across the country. This phenomenon is called “concentration,” or the control of a market by a small number of companies. And it’s come to our food system at a pace rivaling the takeover of our airwaves by reality TV shows. The above infographic, from invaluable food-system data-miner Phil Howard of Michigan State University, shows just how locked up the markets are — only it’s gotten even worse in the past five years.

The freedom to choose – local or not

I live in the Bay Area, where our year-round growing season and ample supply of farmers markets make it relatively easy for me to access food grown by much smaller, local farmers. I suppose that makes me a locavore. But when I buy local food, energy use is not the driving rationale (no pun intended). I buy from a variety of local farms when at all possible because if I don’t, I will probably be eating from a stream of food that has passed through the hands of a tiny number of massive companies. And if those companies’ hands have salmonella all over them, well — look out, world.

The two companies involved in last week’s egg recall were relatively small as far as these things go, controlling only about 1% of the U.S. egg supply. In contrast, virtually our entire meat supply is controlled by four — soon to be three — companies: Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield, and the Brazilian powerhouse JBS, which is vying for a Smithfield takeover. (Grist’s Tom Philpott does the meat math here.) Cargill and two other companies process more than 70% of U.S. soybeans, which are in turn fed to livestock and added to processed food products as soy lecithin and other ingredients. And most of our corn — a staple in livestock feed and present in virtually all processed food — is grown from seed developed by one of two companies.

What does it mean when so few companies control so much of our food? It means that unless we happen to live in a place with a lot of local farmers and the infrastructure to process and distribute their products, we have virtually no control over what we’re eating or feeding to our kids. If these companies choose to raise meat using hormones and antibiotics (and they do), or grow corn from genetically-modified seed (and they do), then that’s what we’ll have access to. And if one thing goes wrong at one of those companies, we all risk being affected.

So here’s my message to Mr. Budiansky: The local foods movement is not so much about choosing between what’s grown here and what’s grown elsewhere. It’s about having any sort of choice at all.

Here in California, where most of the nation’s retail spinach and lettuce is grown, Fresh Express bagged salad mixes could be considered local, using the metrics laid down by Budiansky. But if I have a choice, I won’t buy their products. With one other company, they control some 80% of the market for bagged greens. In the last three months, their products have been recalled on three separate occasions for listeria, salmonella, and E. coli contamination. According to FDA data crunched by the Community Alliance for Family Farmers, nearly 99% of all food-safety outbreaks related to leafy greens have come from bagged products like the ones Fresh Express produces: greens that are washed in massive vats with tons of other greens, put in sealed plastic bags, and transported over long distances to supermarkets around the country.

Luckily, I have other choices, so the phrase “vote with your fork” actually applies to me. Elsewhere, consumers are not so lucky. That’s why, as locavores work to re-democratize, diversify, and decentralize the food system, exercising actual democracy — getting involved in the policies that shape our food system — becomes so important. We can’t buy our way out of the problem if we don’t have any choice about what we buy.

Monopoly money-men

This year, for the first time in history, the USDA and the Department of Justice are conducting a series of five hearings on concentration in food and agricultural markets. They have heard from farmers, consumers, and industry representatives about whether it’s a problem that so few companies control the seeds we use to grow food, or our poultry or milk supplies. On Friday, they’ll convene in Ft. Collins, Colorado, to hear about the meat market. Ranchers from across the West will be there in force, hoping for some respite from the grinding challenge of making a living when you only have one company to sell to and the prices it offers are anything but fair.

Next year, Congress will start debates over the Farm Bill, that legislative behemoth that shapes how our food is grown, processed, and distributed. There’s money in there to revitalize local and regional food systems, to move our food supply from governance by fiat to something more democratic. Will the money be used for these purposes? That’s up to us.

Budiansky laces his op-ed with mischaracterizations of all kinds, but the one I find most egregious is his accusation that the local foods movement is based on “arbitrary rules” and “do-gooder dogmas.” In reality, this movement is not about rules or dogmas, but about values. Last time I checked, democracy was pretty fundamental to this nation’s evolution — a value that all but the most curmudgeonly of us should be able to get behind.

Elanor Starmer is Western Region Director at Food & Water Watch, a national consumer advocacy group, and regular contributor to the Ethicurean. She authored the report “Bridging the GAPS: Strategies to Improve Produce Safety, Preserve Farm Diversity and Strengthen Local Food Systems.”

7 Responsesto “Math lessons for Budiansky: Industrial concentration vs. local choice”

  1. D. Watson says:

    The problem is, you aren’t address Budiansky’s main point: the environmental cost of growing local out of season is very often higher than the environmental cost of growing in season and shipping. That’s still true if you want to support smallholder agriculture or buy organic or rBST-free or anything else. You can do it in a more environmentally friendly way if you are willing to consider buying from more distant places. The internet is a wonderful resource for making such connections. That preserves choice without the simplistic “buy local” message that can undermine what some people care about.

  2. qhartman says:

    From D. Watson:

    “The problem is, you aren’t address Budiansky’s main point: the environmental cost of growing local out of season is very often higher than the environmental cost of growing in season and shipping.”

    My solution to the is to not eat things out of season, or to preserve them when they are in season. Do I sometimes buy things shipped from afar to enjoy outside of my local season or things that just plain don’t grow here? Sure, but I treat that as a luxury and extravagance, like it should be.

    “You can do it in a more environmentally friendly way if you are willing to consider buying from more distant places. The internet is a wonderful resource for making such connections.”

    I’ve never heard of a small-scale farmer who offers to ship their goods online. Can you point me to some? I’m genuinely interested in checking that out. The only food I’ve found for sale online is either the same packaged goods or mega-scale foods you get at the grocery store, or very high-end boutique foods which are exorbitantly expensive.

  3. Budiansky’s Op Ed wasn’t about overall environmental impacts, his focus was on energy consumption alone.  And on that metric, he might be right — with transportation taking up a small fraction of the food production energy pie and the local food movement having a somewhat energy inefficient distribution model (e.g., small trucks driving to farmers markets instead of big trucks or railroad cars making deliveries to central distribution centers) — producing, transporting, storing and preparing a local head of lettuce might take more kilojoules than one from the nation’s salad bowl in the Salinas Valley.  But, as Elanor and the others at Grist are pointing out: there is much more to the local food movement than energy consumption and those things were ignored in the Op Ed.

    Tallying up the entire environmental costs of local vs. non-local would be much more difficult. If you assumed that a local organic product would be replaced by a non-local organic product — for example, local organic lettuce vs. organic lettuce from the Salinas Valley in California — you’d have things that you can measure easily (transportation emissions) and things that are much harder to quantify (small, diverse farms vs. huge monocultures; the value of preserving local farmland; small grass-fed operations vs. organic CAFOs; and etc.).

  4. Anna says:

    The truth is that there are so many metrics to consider. Distance, energy intensity of production and transit, organic or not organic, water footprint, the treatment of the people growing food, and the treatment of the animals producing food.

    In general, it seems better to eat things grown nearby, in season, but the American foodshed is global. Unlike reducing energy use, where there is often some direct feedback in terms of lower energy bills or fewer stops at a gas station, there are few metrics to tell us when we’re choosing food well and making a difference.

  5. Avi says:

    D. Watson is right that you (Elanor) are talking past Budiansky’s main argument, but I think the scope of Budiansky’s argument is wider than Watson gives him credit for (or perhaps I’m charitably reading a point I think is important into Budiansky’s piece).

    Budiansky argues that the energetic costs of shipping food are minimal compared to the costs of growing it, regardless of the method of growing. Which is to say: all things being equal, you grow a tomato in the place most suited to grow a tomato, no matter how you grow the thing. If this is true, it’s equally applicable to local/organic/sustainable food as it is to food produced by large companies.

    But Budiansky’s point is larger still (I think). The point is that there is no room for sacred cows in science, and environmentalism is a scientific project with a well-defined goal. Many locavores eat local out of concern for the environment, but the numbers matter. It is sometimes the case that an intuitively clear argument is quantifiably wrong. Just because local food is often beautiful and delicious and gives me a warm feeling inside, if I want to call myself an environmentalist I have to do the math.

  6. Maureen Ogle says:

    One small correction, if I may: The USDA/JD hearings scheduled for this year not quite the “first in history.” Congress, in cooperation with the USDA and what is now the FDA,  held many hearings on “concentration” in food production during the twentieth century — after WWI, for example, in the late 1930s, in the 1950s and again in the following decade. The Justice Department was also involved in some of, but not all of, those hearings.

  7. There have been several peer-reviewed studies that support the notion that the environmental savings from reducing transportation are often overshadowed by the environmental losses incurred by pushing a crop out of its ideal growing regions. The motivation for going local is indeed not just the environmental impact, but also the social and culinary aspects. If someone wants a tomato to taste a certain way, that’s their prerogative, but they must accept that in getting this particular taste that they could be doing worse for the environment.

    I wanted to point out the issue of food miles as being problematic as well. The issue is not to much the number of miles it has traveled, but the energy of transportation that has been consumed. Traveling 2,000 miles on trains or in big trucks may be less energy-demanding than traveling in many small trucks halfway across the state to the ‘local’ farmer’s market. The best measure would involve taking into account the total energy costs, but who would pay for tallying that up and standardizing it on a label?