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Fathoming Our Food System

12/26/02 12:00AM By Vern Grubinger

Sure, it starts at the farm -- and ends in your stomach, but have you ever wondered how the food system really works? How food is produced, distributed and consumed? The answer is complex, as a new book called 'Northeast Farms to Food' demonstrates by examining data on farming, marketing and eating in our region.

In terms of production, there's been a steady decline in farm numbers, but there's still a lot of agriculture in the 12 northeastern states. Over 25 million acres. And a lot of diversity. Dairy is number one in Vermont, New York and Pennsylvania. Greenhouse products dominate in New Jersey and Massachusetts. Poultry is tops in Delaware and Maryland. Potatoes are king in Maine.

But production can't be sustained without land, and a lot of farmland is being developed. Since 1964, the Northeast has lost 7 million acres of pasture and 4 million acres of crop land. The real estate value of farmland in the Northeast is the highest in the country, and farmland taxes are 4 times the national average. Concern about loss of farmland is being addressed in part by the purchase of conservation easements. Nearly a billion dollars has been invested to protect over half a million farm acres of farmland in the Northeast.

In terms of consumption, Americans now eat a third of all meals outside the home, and spending on fast food has been growing steadily. Our diet is also changing. On average we consume less coffee, milk, eggs and red meat than we did in 1970. But we eat more produce, fish, fats and sweeteners. Cheese consumption is up dramatically. And of the $2200 per person per year that we spend on food, 21 percent--less than ever--goes to the farmer.

In terms of distribution, most of our food travels quite a ways. At the Boston terminal market, a major wholesale source of fresh produce for retail markets, the average shipping distance for all crops is over 2000 miles. Fewer and fewer companies are in control of our food. Supermarket chains have consolidated to the point that there are only a dozen major food retailers in the entire world. The largest is Wal Mart. Just six multi-national companies doing business under a wide variety of brands now account for almost half the retail food purchases in the United States: Phillip Morris, Conagra, Pepsico, Coca Cola, IPB, and Anheuser Busch.

In light of these facts, a lot needs to be done to enhance the sustainability of our food and farming system. Public policies need to promote farms of all sizes, in all regions, producing all kinds of products. We need enhanced opportunities for farmers to sell directly to consumers, and we need to create incentives for institutions to purchase food closer to home. And ultimately, we need to engage people in food citizenship that goes beyond buying local, but also includes voting, planning and educating with a greater awareness of our food system and why it matters.

With an ear to the ground, this is Vern Grubinger.

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