× Close Become a Member

RMFU Blog

Share:

Large and efficient may not add up

By Dave Carter

The conventional wisdom guiding modern agricultural policy is starting to look kind of stupid.

Traditional economists, policymakers and agribusiness executives have long trumpeted the “efficiency” of a modern agricultural system in which independent agricultural producers must step aside in favor of large-scale industrialized food-producing operations.

These respected experts promised repeatedly that the new globalized industrialized agricultural model would supply American consumers with a cornucopia of diverse, high quality goods from around the world.

As we enter a new year, it is time to take stock of this new globalized, industrialized food system:

• ABC recently devoted an entire Nightline broadcast to the growing concern in Europe over Mad Cow Disease.
• The banner front page headline in the December 28 Denver Post warned that the widespread use of antibiotics is leading to new strains of bacteria and disease that is resistant to many modern drugs.
• Recalls of E. coli contaminated beef are so frequent that they hardly warrant media attention.
• One “life science” company’s bumbling of its genetically engineered product pushed the entire American corn market into a tailspin this fall.
• Consumers walking through the checkout stand today cannot tell whether the beef in their shopping cart came from the U.S.A. or from Uruguay.
• Urban sprawl continues to dominate the public’s attention as low commodity prices force ranchers and farmers to sell out to housing developers.

Other than that, this new industrialized, globalized food system is working just fine.

It is time to challenge conventional wisdom. Let’s start by challenging the old complaints that consumers don’t care where their food comes from.

Many consumers today are demanding to know where their food comes from, how it was produced, and what it contains. That attitude represents an opportunity for independent agricultural producers, as long as we are willing to shift agricultural policies all the way from the WTO to the local county commissioners’ offices.

Several state lawmakers are already stepping up to the plate to face this challenge.

In Colorado, for example, State Rep. Kay Alexander, R-Montrose, and State Sen. Jim Dyer, D-Durango, are preparing legislation to encourage development of new producer-owned businesses to add value to basic farm commodities. In recent years, thousands of farmers and ranchers across the West have organized new producer-owned cooperatives with the goal of developing a stronger marketing relationship with customers. The lack of adequate capital dooms too many of these new projects.

Rep. Alexander and Sen. Dyer are proposing to address this problem by authorizing up to $4 million in state tax credits to support value-added agricultural cooperative development projects each year. Patterned after a successful program already utilized in Missouri, the Alexander/Dyer approach will kick in only during periods of state surplus. The funds can be used for feasibility studies, grants, loans, loan guarantees and equity investments.

Wyoming lawmakers, meanwhile, are preparing to rewrite that state’s cooperative laws to eliminate legal hurdles that have hindered the development of new producer-owned enterprises in the past.

Building a relationship with our customers requires better communications as well. Country of origin labeling on food products is a good first step toward that end. Two years ago Wyoming enacted its own version of country of origin labeling legislation. In Colorado, Rep. Alexander is preparing to introduce a slightly different version of the country of origin labeling bill this year. If enacted, that bill will allow consumers to make an informed choice about what to buy in the grocery store.

And then, there’s the issue of labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms (GMO). The life science industry’s bumbling of the GMO issue has sparked consumer outrage, has diminished our export opportunities, and has put a real dent in farm income. Scientifically based labeling of foods containing genetically engineered ingredients is simply a common-sense approach to increase our customers’ trust of the food they buy.

The newly issued federal organic standards at last provide a uniform set of rules to protect the viability and integrity of that marketplace. The Colorado and New Mexico legislatures will need to modify the existing state certification programs to conform to the federal guidelines.

Finally, state governments across the Rocky Mountain West need to encourage more direct marketing among producers and consumers.

ABC concluded its recent Nightline broadcast by noting that European consumers are protecting themselves from Mad Cow Disease by resolving to only buy beef from a local butcher who in turn buys the beef from a local farmer who verifies how the animal was raised.

That sounds like a good New Years resolution for consumers everywhere.