For a few years, I’ve attended the Sustainable Foods Institute, an annual conference at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s one of those rare events that brings together a cross-section of scientists, journalists, chefs, food producers and businesses to discuss the food system -- the good, the bad and the ugly -- with an eye on fixing it.
A lot of common themes come up, but each year I find I get a valuable nugget from someone who brings up something really new, or is doing something surprising.
This year, a couple of really stood one. One was the Wholesome Wave Foundation, whose mission is to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into underserved, low-income communities at an affordable price. The group does so by doubling the value of SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) coupons, an especially valuable task at a time when the recession is still running deep. So if a customer has $5 in SNAP food vouchers, they can buy $10 worth of produce.
I heard Michel Nischan, the chef behind the effort, speak about this two years ago. At the time, he had a model farmers market in Connecticut where he was showing some success, with the market getting a steady stream of customers. But what really surprised me was how much the organization has grown since then, expanding into 18 states and more than 160 markets. Right now, the money to double the coupons’ value is coming from private donors, but Nischan said local government is stepping in as well.
He also disabused two widely accepted notions -- that poor people don’t want to eat fresh fruits and vegetables and there is no economic value for businesses in these communities. Instead, these communities are generating income for farmers and getting produce they might not otherwise afford.
Marion Nestle, the food policy and nutrition guru at New York University, pointed to a graph in a keynote she gave showing a gradual upward slope in the price of fresh produce since the 1980s and a general downward trend in the price of packaged goods over the past two decades. The price signal is clear to low-income people: buy more processed food, which is linked to higher rates of diabetes and heart disease.
Packaged goods are often made from highly subsidized crops (corn, soybeans), while fresh fruits and vegetables get no subsidies. Wholesome Wave’s program works to address that, though a major shift in the $20 billion farm subsidy program (which mostly goes to wealthy and big farmers) would have a major effect too.
Feed the World?
There were also dramatic contrasts. Pamela Ronald, a professor of plant pathology at UC Davis, gave a talk about the need for genetically modified food to “feed the world” -- a familiar talking point in industrial agriculture circles -- but she twinned it with a companion message that GMOs weren’t incompatible with organic farming. In fact, that GMO technology could produce seeds suited to an organic farming system. (A factoid: Pam and I overlapped in our years at Reed College, a school that values debate from alternative perspectives!).
She came at this from the angle of a GMO seed breeder who is interested in reducing pesticide poisonings in the developing world and in boosting food production -- both noble goals. But her assertions on how to do so were left hanging in the air and could have benefitted from another perspective or counterpoint. I did get one, however, when the conference bused out to Earthbound Farm - the organic produce company I wrote about in my book, Organic Inc.
I discussed the issue with Stan Pura, a farmer and partner at Earthbound who has grown both organic and conventional produce (though not the corn and soy where GMOs are prevalent). After years of farming with both methods on a commercial scale, he told me he sees very little difference in yield between the two at least in many of the crops he grows.
In produce, Pura’s company Mission Ranches is breeding seeds to combat specific plant diseases, though not by using genetic engineering. Plus, he relies on familiar organic techniques such as crop rotation, keeping buffers of beneficial habitat to attract good insects (which eat the harmful ones). He didn’t think organic was harder than conventional farming, but it had to be learned, and like anything, as your learning curve improved, so did your results.
In fresh produce, Pura thought the argument that organic requires a far greater amount of land or has drastically lower yields doesn’t hold water. Nor does the argument make economic sense in the Salinas Valley, which has among the most expensive farmland in the world. If organic were so inferior and troublesome, why would Pura grow it on such valuable land?
In fact, in the spring mix salad market, organic is now 50% of the marketplace. Why? Because it can be produced at parity with conventional lettuce -- that is, at a similar cost and yield. That might not occur in every crop, in all conditions. Some crops may do worse, others better.
But in corn and soybeans, the economics of production are distorted by the $20 billion farm program. If the healthy produce were valued as much as grains, Wholesome Wave might have a far easier job than it does now shifting purchases away from processed food. The low-income customers of Wholesome Wave’s innovative program would begin to see vast change in their spending power.
And come to think of it, those farmers that Ronald is working with in the developing world would benefit as well, since they would no longer face competition from subsidized U.S. crops. Better seeds mean nothing if the farmer has no incentive to grow them. In short, what's often presented as a scientific silver bullet is far more complicated when it meets the real world.
I hope to offer more thoughts in this issue in the coming week, during a trip to Zambia to see innovative projects with small-holder farmers.
- Samuel Fromartz