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Time to free our farmers from producing cheap food

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Whenever modern agricultural practices come under fire, ag boosters typically trot out two time-worn defences -- our farmers have to feed the world, and farmers produce cheap food.

It turns out increasing the productivity of small-scale farmers living in poverty -- most of whom are women -- improving market access and reducing waste will go further toward feeding the world than squeezing an extra few bushels per acre out of a Prairie farmer's wheat field -- and use fewer resources.

Now it appears the second fallback defence -- farmers have to produce cheap food --may also be bogus.

The question isn't whether the food produced by the machine we call modern agriculture is cheap, at least on the consumer end of things. The statistics show consumers in industrialized countries have never had it so good, spending approximately one-tenth of their disposable income on food, a smaller share of their income than any other society in history.

This country's farm organizations annually celebrate Food Freedom Day -- the day now in the second month of each year when the average household has earned enough income to buy its annual grocery needs.

The question is whether cheap food is good. Two researchers, Roland Sturm, of RAND Corporation and Ruopeng An, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, have concluded it isn't.

These researchers reviewed the data on all the suspected causes for rising rates of obesity in the U.S. in search of an explanation for why two in three Americans are overweight or obese at a time when access to nutritious food, leisure time and recreational activities have never been easier.

They looked at such things as snack food, fast food, automobile use, time spent viewing television or computer screens, vending machines, suburban sprawl, increasing portion sizes, female labour-force participation, poverty, affluence, supermarket availability and, alternatively, so-called food deserts in the urban cores.

They even looked at race and socio-economic factors. While it is true people with low incomes tend to have higher obesity rates, they also found obesity has been rising across all demographics at about the same pace.

It is now estimated nearly one-third of the global population is obese or overweight, which means there are now more seriously fat people living on this Earth than critically thin. At this point in time, approximately one-eighth of the world's population lives with extreme hunger.

The rise in obesity over the past three decades presents a "major public-health epidemic in both the developed and developing world," the report from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington says.

It's bad enough cheap food is now seen as a major public-health threat. But some are even calling it a threat to national security.

That was the gist of the press conference called by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and retired U.S. army generals recently to condemn efforts to water down new nutritional standards for American school lunch programs on the basis they are too expensive.

With one in five American youth too overweight to enlist in the military, the country would be hard-pressed to find enough soldiers to defend itself in times of war, they said.

As farmers well know, even though the spectacular productivity of current practices has resulted in cheap food for consumers, it's an expensive and risky way to farm with its high capital costs and razor-thin margins -- not to mention the costs that are externalized, such as declining biodiversity, soil and water quality.

Releasing our farmers from all this pressure to feed the world and keep our food cheap clears the way for a much more salient value proposition to society -- one that is rooted in stewardship, social responsibility and producing foods that are a solution, rather than a contributor, to public-health concerns. Food that meets those criteria is a far better buy.

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 792-4382 or by email:


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2014 B9

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