Last year, I quit buying Styrofoam-bottomed, cellophane-wrapped chicken parts. Now I order whole chickens before they even hatch. Each spring, a family farmer I know takes orders for organic, free-range chickens to be delivered when they mature. This arrangement is good for all concerned. That farmer gets a guaranteed market on a set volume at the price he needs. I get wholesome, good-tasting chickens. And the chickens enjoy a free-range lifestyle markedly better than their abused cousins in factory farms.
I pay more for my chickens than I would for store bought, mass-produced ones, but I don't pay too much. The farmer charges me only what it costs him to raise and dress my chickens plus a reasonable profit. He is a farmer who endeavors to operate in an environmentally sound, ethical way. Buying from this farmer, I support a food system that embodies my values---one that provides wholesome food, cares for creation, and provides a living wage to family farmers.
This arrangement stands in sharp contrast to the nations' mainstream food-production and distribution system. Under this highly touted system, the safety of our food has become suspect while the land's future productivity is being undermined. Family farmers and rural communities are disappearing, wetlands and wildlife habitat are being destroyed, and control of the food system is being concentrated into fewer and larger corporate hands.
Much of the problem stems from our long-standing cheap-food policy. U.S. consumers send only an average of 11 percent of their income on food, while Canadians spend 14.5 percent, the French 17 percent, and the Japanese 20 percent. But there's a reason U.S. consumers spend so much less than their international counterparts: to make food affordable to everyone, taxpayers underwrite a portion of all other consumer's food costs with government subsidies to farmers. The government also tries to ensure cheap food by setting price controls on those commodities.
These controls have limited farmers' incomes while their input costs have skyrocketed. Combined with another long-standing government policy of encouraging fewer, bigger farms, this system has contributed to the collapse of family farms and depopulation of the nation's rural communities.
But the real shortcoming of the cheap-food policy isn't that retail prices are too low, it's that the farmer's share is too small. For example the retail price of bread in 1990 was 72 cents. But the cost of all farm products in that loaf was valued at only 4 cents. While they may keep the farmer from getting a larger cut of the loaf, government price controls don't extend to processors and distributors. Food processors buy the artificially low-priced raw commodities from farmers, then sell the processed product to consumers for whatever price they wish. The taxpayers' subsidies to farmers, designed to provide cheap food to consumers, actually subsidize large food conglomerates.
One of the hidden costs of this cheap-food fraud is environmental damage. In their efforts to make up for the low prices set on their product, farmers try to increase yields by pouring millions of pounds of fertilizers and pesticides onto their fields annually. That practice has contaminated surface and groundwater. Intensive farming has eroded millions of tons of soil each year and destroyed wetlands and wildlife habitat.
The best remedy for these problems is to simply do away with the cheap-food policy and eliminate subsidies. While they might find it hard to believe now, in the long run farmers and consumers would be better off. Since total subsidy elimination would be difficult to achieve politically, however, a subsidy reduction could begin by targeting those funds starkly to family farmers willing to use environment-friendly farming methods.
While consumers work for these policy changes, though, they can affect the current system now by leaving it---seeking out places where organic food products are offered and demanding them where they're not. Supermarkets are not the only places to pushes our daily bread. consumers can patronize food systems that better embody their values. Most communities have food cooperatives that carry organic products. Weekly visits to farmers; markets allow consumers to put 100 percent of their food dollar into the growers; hands. These markets offer locally grown, fresher food, minimal packaging and they're fun.
Another fast-growing alternative to supermarkets is Community Supported Agriculture. People invest up front by buying a "share" in a community farm. the share is a given volume of fresh, organically grown produce. Shareholders can help plant, cultivate, and harvest. Such direct contact with the land can be spiritually rewarding, too.
Genesis tells that God put human beings in the "garden" to "till it and to keep it." Tilling is for human sustenance. Keeping means earth-keeping---maintaining creation's capacity to provide sustenance for all creatures, for all time. The decline of family farming ad the degradation of soil and water are a few consequences of tilling without keeping. They are the consequences of the separation of economics from ecology.