I love it when things come together and you can connect the dots. Here are my dots this week – our latest Green Living Pulse study and the movie Food Inc.
In Green Living Pulse (to be released the first week of August), we learned that several of the most engaged green Americans grow some or most of their own food. This may be for economic reasons, as the recession languishes, or health reasons, as one fifth-one third of this group say that someone they know suffers from asthma, allergies or other serious health conditions.
Or it may be because they’re more educated about the food system in this country.
I don’t actually have data to suggest that Americans are more aware of how food makes it to our plates (we haven’t tested it), but I was struck by several points Food Inc. made that could be striking consumers as well:
The consolidation of the food industry. According to Food Inc. the top meat producers in the country control about 80% of the supply, and there are only five major slaughterhouses providing meat to the top suppliers.
It’s legal to own an entire crop. Farmers aren’t allowed to save their seeds from year to year, or else risk being sued by Monsanto – who provides the genetically-modified seeds that produce 90% of the country’s soybeans.
It’s also against the law to publicly criticize food products. Yep, the Veggie Libel laws make it easier for food companies to sue people – remember the Oprah case in the late 1990’s when she had to defend her remarks about being afraid to eat beef after an outbreak of Mad Cow disease?
Food safety checks by the USDA and FDA are down almost 80% despite more frequent E. Coli outbreaks. Back in the 1970s, more than 50,000 food safety checks were made every year – now it’s down to less than 10,000. Since the 1970s, the American population has grown from 212 million to almost 310 million, an increase of almost 100 million people.
Food costs are kept artificially low – and cheap calories lead to health epidemics. Government subsidies and bad consumer eating habits keep the unhealthiest foods the cheapest. Result? Obesity and diabetes, especially among children, are now legitimate national epidemics.
These are all points that could make a green-leaning consumer reconsider his/her food choices.
The other side of the story is that the number of farmer’s markets has tripled since 1994 to almost 5,300. The number of community supported agriculture (CSA) organizations is on the rise and a new model for locally caught fish – the CSF – is starting to take off. And a prime time television mini-series featuring Jamie Oliver trying to teach Americans to eat healthier made enough of an impact to find its way into several of our recent focus groups.
It takes a long time to change an ingrained system like the one we’ve relied on for so many years to provide us with cheap food, but there are opportunities for small manufacturers, small farmers and small retailers who want to return to a simpler, more local model.
As demand continues to rise among all income levels, organic and natural foods companies may find that they can sell products at price parity with conventional items and make up lost price premiums through increased sales volume. This will remove yet another barrier to widespread adoption of organic foods.
And, according to our data, many Americans are hungry for that, whether they’re more aware of our food realities or not.