Where Does Our Food Come From?
Here in the US, we have several key issues. Some of these are outside the scope of what I write about here, such as the ballooning national debt and erosion of civil liberties. Two of these issues are exactly what we care about here, though – food security and food freedom.
Specifically, every year we produce less and less of the food that our ever growing population needs. So let’s talk about where our food comes from. And I’m not talking about a generic answer like “from the ground” or “from a cow”. I want to dig into where we’re importing our food from, which companies are selling us our meat, and what possible problems that causes.
Food Industry Conglomeration
There’s one word that sums up nearly everything we need to know about the food industry in the United States: conglomeration. From the companies growing/making our food to the companies selling it to us, never in history has so much power and control been amassed in the hands of so few companies.
According to an excellent infographic from FoodBeast.com, four grocery chains supply 50% of all of the nation’s groceries. Two companies (Tyson and JBS) have a hand in a big cut of all pork, beef, and chicken production in the U.S.
In the packaged food world, PepsiCo, Dole, General Mills, Nestle, and Kraft control a vast portion of the market. Even those natural and organic brands in your pantry like Cascadian Farm, Muir Glen, Larabar, Back To Nature, and Horizon are owned by conglomerates like these.
Who Supplies Our Produce?
I was unable to find any information on which companies are providing the majority of our produce. I’d guess lots of it is centered in the hands of the major corporations under various labels.
According to the USDA, only about 1/3 of our fruit and nuts and 1/8 of our vegetables are imported. About two-thirds of those imports occur during the months of December to April, showing a strong seasonal component to it. Basically, we want what we want even if it’s only available 5,000 miles away.
Mexico is far and away our biggest supplier of fruits and vegetables, taking the top spot in both categories by about a 2-to-1 margin over 2nd place. Canada takes 2nd place in vegetables with China a distant third. (Note that these are in dollar figures, not volume, but the relationships should hold when converted.) In the fruit category, most of it comes from Central and South America, with only China (4th) to break up the Top 6 of Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Ecuador.
Who Supplies Our Animal Products?
The meat industry is another area where major conglomeration has taken place, with companies like Tyson, Smithfield, and JBS (Swift) gobbling up smaller producers. Control of the meat market is concentrated in very few hands:
- 57% of all pork comes through Smithfield, JBS, and Tyson
- 70% of all beef comes through Tyson, Cargill, and JBS
- 40% of all chicken comes through Tyson and JBS
The scariest part might be this statistic though (back to that infographic from FoodBeast):
Big Food will help the average American male consume a body-warping 35 pounds of antibiotics via store-bought meat in his lifetime.
Unfortunately, none of the meat coming out of these guys (as far as I can find, at least) is raised on pasture like the animals should be. It’s all feedlot meat, which is worse for the animal, the environment, and the eater. The grass-fed/pasture-raised meat market only accounts for about 3-4% of the total market for meat.
The US actually does produce most of its own red meat. As of 2008, only about 10% of our red meat was imported, predominantly from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It might’ve gone up or down a little in the past few years, but from driving across New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, I can tell you there are still A LOT of cows being raised in the US (and boy can you smell those feedlots from a LONG way away!).
Fish and shellfish are our major protein imports, with nearly 80% of those being imported. Most of that comes from China, Canada, and Thailand.
Imports Are Going Up
There is one bright spot here: most of the food Americans consume is still produced here.
Currently, between 10 and 15 percent of all food consumed by U.S. households is imported. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), nearly two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables and 80 percent of seafood consumed domestically come from outside the United States.
[Note that the USDA says that it's 1/3 of our fruit and 1/8 of our vegetables and the FDA says it's 2/3 of our fruit and vegetables. I have no clue which is right and can't find any information to reconcile the disparity.]
On the other hand, we are seeing a marked increase in imports over time. According to USDA data, from 1999 to 2010, there was a 43.25% increase in import volume (111% increase on a dollar basis). Population growth is a partial contributor, but in that same time period, the US population only increased about 10%. Obviously we’re off-loading more of our food purchases to other countries.
The part of this that is most concerning though is how few of those shipments are inspected.
In 2010, FDA inspectors physically examined 2.06 percent of all food-related imports. The FDA expects only 1.59 percent of all food imports to be examined this year and even less — only 1.47 percent — next year, according to its Office of Regulatory Affairs.
The top three countries that we import from are Canada, Mexico, and China. We are actually Mexico’s largest trading partner, buying 77% of their exports.
The Elephant In The Room: China
Let’s just go ahead and state this unequivocally: it’s nearly impossible to live without products from China. Now, let me start by saying that I have nothing against China. I have nothing against people in China earning a great wage, having a great quality of life, and competing on the global stage. I do have a problem with lax quality controls and tainted food being shipped in for me and my fellow US citizens to eat.
I have a major problem with attempts to import non-organic food as organic.
The Chinese firm used the counterfeit certificate to represent non-organic crops, including soybeans, millet and buckwheat, as certified organic.
From 1995 to 2006, imports from China grew five-fold:
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United States imported $4.1 billion worth of seafood and agricultural products from China in 2006. In 1995, it was $800 million.
From 2006 to 2008, it went up another 25%.
In 2008, Chinese imports reached $5.2 billion, making China the third-largest source of U.S. food imports. About 41 percent of this import value was from fish and seafood, most of it farm-raised. Juices and pickled, dried, and canned vegetables, and fruit accounted for the other 25 percent.
According to the USDA, about 60 percent of all American apple juice, 50 percent of garlic, 10 percent of shrimp and 2 percent of catfish are imported from China.
The total weight of all that food? Over 4 billion pounds.
For example, in 2009:
- More than three-quarters (77.8 percent) of the tilapia Americans ate came from the 287.5 million pounds of imports from China.
- The United States imported 451.4 million gallons of apple juice from China, amounting to two-thirds (70.0 percent) of U.S. consumption.
- The 64.1 million pounds of cod imported from China amounted half (50.0 percent) of U.S. consumption.
- The 149.7 million pounds of imported processed mushrooms constituted 42.7 percent of consumption.
- The 173.2 million pounds of imported garlic was 22.8 percent of U.S. consumption.
- The 46.1 million pounds of frozen spinach represented 21.5 percent of U.S. consumption.
You should read all 10 pages of the document in the last link if you want to understand the extent of our own government’s failure to put basic measures in place to protect consumers due to corporate pressure that puts corporate profits above consumers. The section “Trade Trumps Food Safety” on Page 8 is particularly interesting.
While you and I might not be eating all of this food, our fellow citizens are. Considering the number of food contamination issues that have come out of China, this isn’t an “oh well, doesn’t affect me” matter. We’ve had baby formula (and dog food) with melamine, honey contaminated with lead and chloramphenicol (along with not always being honey), and seafood with a bonus of salmonella.
[Of course, the major food corporations are importing a good bit of the food from China, so you'll never know because the Country Of Origin Label laws don't require all foods be labeled: "Melamine was then found in the food supplies of multinational agribusinesses, including Mars, Unilever, Heinz, Cadbury and Pizza Hut (owned by YUM! Brands, Inc.)."]
Is This Cause For Concern?
I don’t want to be an alarmist, but HELL YES this is cause for concern. Or at least some of it is. We’re certainly never going to be fully self-sufficient on food, nor do we need to be. If we want to enjoy pineapple, avocados, and mangos, importing is pretty much a necessity. As a country, we do need to be wise about how we go about it and just how much of our own food production we off-load. There’s a difference between importing luxuries like tropical fruits and chocolate and importing our necessities.
Lately, I’ve started listening to a podcast called The Thomas Jefferson Hour. One of the first episodes I listened to was called “Founding Farmers” and talked about how agrarian our early Presidents were. Mr. Jefferson envisioned a nation of farmers and people who had a hand in the production of our food. Without control of our food and water sources, we really have very little control over anything. Unfortunately, we’ve gone from a nation where half of the population is farmers to a nation where barely 1% of the nation list farmer as their occupation.
Giving control of our food supply to foreign concerns brings a whole host of problems. Perhaps it’s not a big deal when we’re talking about our friendly neighbor to the north, Canada, or even Australia and New Zealand. But even Chinese officials admit they can’t control the country’s sprawling food system, so how can we expect to trust food from China that’s going into our kids and ourselves?
Even within the nation’s borders, putting control of so much of our meat in the hands of 2 or 3 companies brings major issues. How many thousands of pounds of meat have we seen recalled from factory farming operations that sickened thousands?
There’s nothing wrong with making a profit. In fact, good business demands it. But there is something very wrong with a purely profit-driven society that is willing to cut corners on its own lifeblood, the food supply, always going for the biggest profit even when it endangers our health.
The Solution: Care About Your Food’s Source
Obviously, one solution to eating better food is eating organic. Organic food is better in most cases because it gets away from the heavy petroleum-based pesticide and fertilizer load that non-organic food often carries.
But just like in every other area of the food industry, we’re seeing increased consolidation of organic food companies with many being bought by major food corporations like Dean, Kraft, and Kellogg. I’m not sure that will be a good thing in the end.
On The Other Hand, There’s Positive Movement Too
While we are importing more food, there is some positive news. According to the USDA, local food is seeing a resurgence with major increases in the number of farmer’s markets, CSAs, and farm-to-school programs.
- The number of farmers’ markets rose to 5,274 in 2009, up from 2,756 in 1998 and 1,755 in 1994, according to USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.
- In 2005, there were 1,144 community-supported agriculture organizations (CSAs) in operation, up from 400 in 2001 and 2 in 1986, according to a study by the nonprofit, nongovernmental organization National Center for Appropriate Technology. In early 2010, estimates exceeded 1,400, but the number could be much larger.
- The number of farm to school programs, which use local farms as food suppliers for school meals programs, increased to 2,095 in 2009, up from 400 in 2004 and 2 in the 1996-97 school year, according to the National Farm to School Network. Data from the 2005 School Nutrition and Dietary Assessment Survey, sponsored by USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, showed that 14 percent of school districts participated in Farm to School programs, and 16 percent reported having guidelines for purchasing locally grown produce.
It sounds like two things are happening simultaneously. First, some consumers are becoming more aware of where their food comes from, opting for local producers, farmer’s markets, CSAs, and buying clubs. Second, most of the population is still seeking the lowest priced food. No surprise there…we are still in the midst of a recession, people’s incomes are down, and a lot of people are underwater on their debt. Unfortunately, when something has to give, it’s often food. Simultaneously, corporations are outsourcing as much as possible to cheaper labor areas, specifically China, to maximize their profits, even at the price of food quality. Of course, that’s all conjecture.
The Bottom Line: Know Your Farmer
We have to realize that the government both doesn’t care to do the due diligence necessary to ensure our imports are safe, nor does it have the bandwidth to do so. (I say the government doesn’t care because if it did, it wouldn’t relent so easily when pushed by large food conglomerates not to provide consumers with basic Country Of Origin information on all foods.) The countries that are exporting to us seem to have little incentive either. The major corporations supplying our food have little incentive to do anything beyond the bare minimum required to ensure there isn’t another recall.
Now, we’ve all probably heard of the 100-mile diet. If you haven’t, it’s basically the locavore notion of eating only what’s grown within 100 miles of your home. I don’t have a problem with eating like this, especially the spirit of the idea. But I think, to follow the letter of the law and only eat what’s grown within 100 miles of you, is very restrictive and unnecessary, like a lot of elements of nutrition that are out there today.
Here’s a big reason that I think it’s overly restrictive. Trade has been a hallmark of human civilizations since the birth of civilization. Yeah, sure, we evolved in an “eat only what you hunt and gather” setup, but we’re long past that. And frankly, here’s my biggest issue with it. Olives, avocados, bananas, mangos, papayas…these are all things that grow in relatively restricted regions around the world and I just don’t see giving them up because of an arbitrary notion of 100 miles.
What I recently saw really struck a chord with me though. It was a post by Sharon Astyk on the Science Blogs website about The Bullseye Evaluation of where your food comes from. Basically, Sharon put together a target of 6 concentric circles with a bullseye in the center. The red bullseye is your own home. The first circle is Neighborhood, the second is Local Food, then Regional Farmers, Food From My State, Food From My Nation, and Food From Everywhere Else.
What I really like about this is that it acknowledges that we’ll never get everyone eating even close to strictly within 100 miles (well, short of wholesale economic and societal collapse). But it does prioritize getting things as close to the center as possible, beginning with your own backyard garden. And it also acknowledges that most of us aren’t going to give up Swiss chocolate and Greek olives and Italian olive oil and Australian wines forever.
Basically, when it gets down to it, I don’t care if you go with 100 miles or The Bullseye Diet or whatever. The key is that choosing the most locally grown food available allows you to keep better tabs on what you’re eating. With local and regional farmers, you can go to the farms and check them out. Once you get outside of the region though, you’re likely going to have to investigate online or trust others to know.
As a nation, we’re losing the basic skills of food preparation. We need to learn to cook and eat with the seasons so that we don’t need to ship in apples from China in the dead of winter.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can ensure that we have the best, cleanest, and safest sources of high quality, nutritious food. So tell me about your food procurement. Do you grow a garden? Do you shop at the farmer’s market? Do you spend your dollars at a grocery like Kroger or Albertson’s, at a place like Trader Joe’s, or at Whole Foods?
I’m going to put together a community survey and see how people are eating. I’ll get it posted on the blog here soon. I think this is an important issue facing anyone wanting to eat the freshest, cleanest food possible.