Has the Sustainable Food Movement Failed?

Can we have our bacon and eat it too?

Our modern food movement isn’t working, says Pacific Standard writer James McWilliams: even though “muckrakers have been exposing every hint of corruption in corporate agriculture” and “reformers have been busy creating programs to combat industrial agriculture with localized, ‘real food’ alternatives,” factory farms are bigger and busier than ever—in fact, they’re “proliferating like superweeds in a field of Monsanto corn.”

McWilliams is drawing this conclusion from a report just released by Food and Water Watch, called “Factory Farm Nation.” Some of the report’s key findings:

The total number of livestock on the largest factory farms rose by 20 percent between 2002 and 2012.

The number of dairy cows on factory farms doubled, and the average-sized dairy factory farm increased by half, between 1997 and 2012.

The number of hogs on factory farms increased by more than one-third, and the average farm size swelled nearly 70 percent from 1997 to 2012.

The number of broiler chickens on factory farms rose nearly 80 percent from 1997 to 2012, to more than 1 billion.

The number of egg-laying hens on factory farms increased by nearly one quarter from 1997 to 2012, to 269 million.

It seems that, as McWilliams puts it, the sustainable food movement has “hit the brick wall of economic reality.” Despite the efforts of food reformers like Michael Pollan or Joel Salatin, factory-farmed meats and dairy are still just plain cheaper. “To most people, even ethically concerned food people, blueberries are just blueberries,” writes McWilliams. “Food is just food.”

But of course the deeper problem here is that food is not just food—it’s a piece of a larger structure of economy, ecosystem, and community. And the blossoming prosperity of factory farms is not, in fact, a normal or organic outgrowth of free-market demand: it is an artificial construct, a bloated system sustained by government subsidies, crop insurance, and regulatory supports. This should be made clear by the fact that, even as the locavore/farm-to-fork movement has swelled considerable over the past seven to 10 years, these factory farms are still doing incredibly well.

The federal government bolsters large farms and turns a blind eye to their environmental detriments (detailed at length in the Food and Water Watch report), while dis-incentivizing—and even crippling—smaller farms. As the report puts it, Big Ag corporations foster “an intensely consolidated landscape where a few giant agribusinesses exert tremendous pressure on livestock producers to become larger and more intensive.”

Heavily-subsidized corn becomes cheap feed for malnourished, maltreated cattle, as “misguided farm policy [has] encouraged over-production of commodity crops such as corn and soybeans, which artificially depressed the price of livestock feed and created an indirect subsidy to factory farm operations.”

Factory farmers don’t have to worry about their manure lagoons, so they cram as many beef cattle as possible onto their land: “lax environmental rules and lackluster enforcement allowed factory farms to grow to extraordinary sizes without having to properly manage the overwhelming amount of manure they create.”

McWilliams looks at the current situation, and suggests taking extreme measures: “Begin with animal domestication. It’s got to go. Given the centrality of animal products to industrial agriculture (and many other industries), to attack the raising and slaughtering of animals would be a far more effective way to change our food system than localizing meat production or attempting to alter the manner of domestication.”

But when one considers the strong (even fierce) consumer preference for meat, as well as the entire systems of industry and agriculture that rotate around it, it becomes clear that this plan of action would never sell. It could also have harsh consequences for the farmer and land, as author and farmer Shannon Hayes explains in this paper defending small-scale livestock farming.

McWilliam’s problem is that he is only looking at one tier of a much more complicated, layered problem. Fixing America’s food system cannot just be done at the consumer level: with our current system of artificial prices, bloated benefits, and thinly-veiled cronyism, there’s little the consumer can do long-term to fix the problem. Consumers may demand free-range eggs—but factory farms will respond by relegating a few thousand of their conventionally-farmed chickens to a “free range” area, in order to cater to that niche in the market (as Daniel Sumner explains in this EconTalk on the political economy of agriculture). Their overall practices will not change, and any money used to buy those “free-range” eggs will just flow back into the pockets of the industrial farmer.

Being well-informed and shopping locally, via CSAs or farmer’s markets, can help. But it can also be very expensive, and thus turns the sustainable “food movement” into an upper or upper-middle class issue, one to which lower-income citizens have little to no access.

On the other hand, by tackling the cronyism and regulatory system that undergirds our agriculture, we can shift the economic battle to the political sphere and push for change beyond the grocery shelves, looking to the core policy issues that push back any “change” we’re able to achieve.

This could involve fighting for local food freedom, as folks in Wyoming have currently—thus taking some of the price power out of the hands of large farmers and gives it back to small, local operations, and countering the difficulty McWilliams addresses when he notes that factory-farmed food is always cheaper.

Change may also necessarily involve the establishment of some environmental measures to crack down on the extreme pollution and maltreatment of land that is currently allowed in factory farms, as Food and Water Watch’s report argues.

But it is important to note that our current situation—undesired as it is by a growing number of consumers, costly as it is long-term for land, animal, and person—cannot be sustained without artificial incentives and consumer ignorance. By fixing the first politically, we may in fact find it easier to fix the second organically, bit by bit. This may help fix the problem that McWilliams is addressing—while still allowing consumers to have their bacon and eat it, too.

This article was originally published in The American Conservative, where you can read more of Gracy’s writing.

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