Jennifer Wilkins is a food and society policy fellow in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell, and contributed the following Op-Ed piece to the December 18, 2004 New York Times. For those of you who missed the piece, or would like to share it with friends, we include the text here. Read on…
Ithaca, N.Y. — When Tommy Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, announced this month that he was resigning, he made an unexpected comment: “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.” He added, “We are importing a lot of food from the Middle East, and it would be easy to tamper with that.”
Unexpected, but right. The United States is importing more and more food, and not just from the Middle East (which actually accounts for only 0.4 percent of our food imports). Tomatoes from Mexico, grapes from Chile and beef from Brazil are standard fare on American tables. The Department of Agriculture reports that in 2005, our nation will fail to record an agricultural surplus for the first time in 50 years, demonstrating our rising dependency on foreign agricultural production and distribution systems that may not be safe.
Yet few of these imports are examined to ensure they meet American health and safety standards. This year, the Food and Drug Administration will inspect about 100,000 of the nearly five million shipments of food crossing our borders, and distribution is so rapid that tainted food can reach consumers nationwide before officials realize there is a problem. The increasing control of the global food supply by a few corporations has made such tampering even more tempting for a terrorist who wants to have a big impact.
You might think that the solution is obvious: we should rely on our domestic food supply. Unfortunately, when it comes to food security, our vulnerabilities at home rival those we face abroad. The federal government’s encouragement of consolidation in agriculture diminishes the security of our food supply.
Since the 1950’s, American agricultural policies have been grounded in the belief that farms should produce as much food as possible for the least cost. These policies have led to a landscape of fewer but bigger farms that specialize in a decreasing number of commodities that are destined for fewer processors and packers.
From 1993 to 2000, 33,000 farms with annual sales of less than $100,000 disappeared. Meanwhile, very large farms play a larger role in the United States: farms generating more than $500,000 a year are only 3.3 percent of all farms but use 20.3 percent of America’s farmland and account for 61.9 percent of all sales. The 10 largest food companies account for more than half of all products on supermarket shelves. Imagine what might happen to our food supply if a widespread contamination by a food-borne disease, accidental or intentional, were to strike even one of those megafarms or food companies.
The increasing power of food processors means that the farmer no longer controls the quality of the food system. About 85 percent of all vegetables destined for freezing and canning are grown under contract, with processors dictating variety, quantity, quality, delivery date and even price. If American farmers cannot produce the cheapest food, the processors turn to foreign countries, where there is greater potential for contamination, whether because of less strict inspection procedures or because of fewer protections against bioterrorism.
The combination of cheap food from overseas and the consolidation of domestic production compromises America’s ability to feed itself. A food system in which control of the critical elements is concentrated in few hands can and will fall victim to terrorism or accidents.
The solution to these insecurities is to establish community-based food systems that include many small farmers and a diversity of products. Such systems make large-scale contamination impossible, even for determined bioterrorists. Far more people have contact with the Mexican lettuce at the supermarket, for example, than with the locally grown lettuce at the farmers’ market.
But is it possible for farmers’ markets to feed a growing country and provide the range of produce we demand? The answer is yes. With some exceptions, like coffee and chocolate, American farmers can easily meet demand. They’ve also had great success in marketing directly to the consumer: the number of farmers’ markets has increased to 3,100 in 2002 from approximately 1,700 in 1994.
But creating this system of agriculture would require a shift in policy. We should encourage smaller, diversified farms, a reallocation of farmland from feed grains to food crops, and local food processing. And the change in the cabinet, at both the department of health and human services and the department of agriculture, is an opportune moment for a such a change in policy.
It would be reassuring to one day hear a new secretary of health and human services report that a terrorist attack on our food system would be next to impossible because it is a complex network of farmers, processors and consumers integrated into communities nationwide. Strengthening local food systems and supporting policies that shorten the distance between producers and consumers will reduce the points of vulnerability and make America truly food-secure.