Frequently, I hear two types of news related to food. One item reports that agricultural giants are using their market power to further industrialize production of crops and animals. The other item reports that farmers, consumers and small businesses are attempting to build alternative food supply chains because they believe the industrial model is damaging to health, food safety, rural communities, workers and the environment. Are these two parts of our food system on a collision course? Is it necessary that one must win and the other lose?
I don’t think so. The industrial food system and an alternative local food system each contains within it the key to the other’s success, not its destruction. The industrial system’s ability to gather and use data is a key to the economic success of alternative food supply chains. The local food movement’s deep understanding of the cultural and social values related to food is the key to the progress of industrialized agriculture. Success or failure of participants in either the existing or new supply chains will depend upon their ability to add the skills of the other.
The Value of Access to Data
The industrial giants that have emerged from the food industry have amassed huge amounts of data. They mine the data, analyze it, restrict access to it and determine new ways to accomplish a specific objective — profit maximization. To solve the problem of profit maximisation, these data reveal solutions such that baby formula and diapers be on opposite sides of a store, that candy be next to the check out stand, that beef, pork, chicken and fish be fed corn, that meat be bland, that artificially flavored marinades be used to improve the taste of meat, that animals be confined to eliminate natural behaviors and maximize growth, that food be highly processed, that high fructose corn syrup be in all types of food, that food travel 1,500 miles before it is consumed, etc. The ability to collect and use vast amount of data has given rise to highly sophisticated problem solving skills in the food industry.
While data have given the industrial food giants an economic advantage, the downside is that the industrial giants focus on data related to profit maximization. They do not consider data related to the quality of life of farmers, farm animals, the environment, the economy, consumer health and safety or many other things that would actually increase the value of food, decrease costs, and grow the economy. Without such data the industry’s solutions to the profit problem have created problems that the industrial giants do not even perceive. As a result, the industrial giants do not see that there is a vast unmet demand for a certain type of food — food that is raised in a manner that is consistent with values of good stewardship, the golden rule and sound economic principles — food that does not bankrupt farmers, foul the environment or mistreat animals.
Value of a Farmer and the Values of a Consumer
Industrialization brought bigger farms and fewer farmers. Farmers who left, farmers who remain, and consumers are keenly aware of the change. Consumers know industrial food is not consistent with their social and cultural values. They seek food grown by local farmers. They expose and oppose mistreatment of agricultural animals. Farmers are responding to the consumer. Farmers are serving local markets, raising organic crops and grass-fed or free-range animals. They are raising food that consumers value more than the commodities produced by industrial agriculture. They are building processing facilities. They are using new marketing approaches. Due to consumers and farmers working together they have developed valuable trust in each other, valuable growing methods, valuable products and values to guide their business dealings.
While some farmers and consumers have come together, the process is not efficient or profitable. The demand for food of greater value remains unmet because there is simply no easy way for the farmer and the consumer to connect and exchange the information necessary information to coordinate the supply chain and exchange money for products. Coordinating a new supply chain is a daunting task. There must be enough farmers and enough consumers to be economically viable. This will require very efficient access to information that is easy and inexpensive to process, but there is no easily accessible market information about farmers, processors, transporters, retailer, distributors or consumers for food of great value. Thus the demand remains unmet.
Future Values and the Future of Food
The value of food is both economic and cultural. Industrialized agriculture results in an economical product with little social or cultural value. Local food raised by farmers results in a culturally significant product that is either not profitable to produce or not economical to consume. Industrialized agriculture will not destroy the cultural value of local, farm-raised food. An alternative food system will not destroy the economic profitability of industrialized agriculture. The industrial model and the alternative model do not embody each others destruction.
Instead, each embodies the key to the other’s success. An alternative food supply chain now appears to be possible due to information technology. In the way that social networking sites have transformed the coordination of our social lives by giving us extraordinary ability to access, process and exchange information, related technologies could enable the coordination of new, smaller and more valuable food supply chains. On the other hand, the existing food system could be transformed it recognized the usefulness of data related to farms and farmers, the welfare of animals, and the environment. If consumers, farmers and all supply chain participants were provided with the data and permitted to respond to social and cultural values the industrialized system would change and produce food of greater value.
The conclusions seems inescapable. Information will change our food system. The current industrial food system gathers, processes and restricts access to vast amounts of information regarding what is important to maximize profits. But it ignores a vast amount of information that is relevant to the social and cultural values of producers and consumers. The local food movement understands the information related to the values of producers and consumers, and will soon have access to technology needed to gather and process this data. The information age is reaching the food industry.