What happens when food is valued as a commodity first, a source of nutrition last?

by Meri Ratzel

This past month I was fortunate to spend time with friends at the National Family Farm Coalition. For three days we discussed the messages consumers need to hear to support programs that create a better food system.

Current strategies to educate consumers via Fair Food, Buy Local, and branding campaigns have taken good steps to highlight inequity, but haven’t yet effectively put a face on the problem. We still don’t know what percentage of a dollar goes to our food producers, nor do we know the percentage that goes to those who sell it.

Fact: The current price paid for production cannot support a farming or fishing family.Neither can it support those who work for farmers or fishermen. Current food prices cannot provide a living wage to a farm worker or a crewman, either. We need to ask what percentage of the price we pay is returned to the farmer/fisherman who cares for the resource that gives us our food.

FactA farmer or a fisherman forced to produce more food for less return manifests itself in our communities as poverty, pollution and environmental degradation. And whether it’s land grabs or quota consolidation, for food producers, the cost of doing business keeps climbing.

Fact: Our political climate abets this process when SNAP benefits and conservation measures are the first things eliminated in the current iteration of the Farm Bill. These social protection programs are being sacrificed to secure greater profit for the commodity buyers of our milk, meat and vegetables. These commodity buyers/sellers compete in global markets that sell “cheap food” at a loss to the farmer and the fisherman.

FactUnder the current system, food is exploited as a commodity. Attempts to address the nutritional needs of our communities have been halted by powerful interests that exert influence on our legislators. Food is  valued as an item of trade first, and a source of nutrition last. The true value of our food is primarily aimed at the expense of the people who produce it. 

We need to provide a fair price for our farmers and our fishermen that promises them a livelihood, and restore access to good food in our rural communities and inner cities. We need to create a community of broad support that includes citizens-consumers to create a culture of change – as I heard it at the conference. 

Citizens need to resist these trends! More people need to advocate for legislation that measures food in the community values of health and environment . We need to change the current food system into one that serves the basic needs of all working people. Food is not a commodity. It is a basic human right.

Meri Ratzel is a Cape Cod-based food and fisheries activist with a biology background. She started the Cape’s first Community Supported Fishery program and is currently working on projects to improve local food systems and fisheries research.