Americans are increasingly looking for reforms in our food system. Limited use of pesticides, animal welfare, and sustainability are just some of the issues becoming more important to consumers when they make decisions about their food. Unfortunately, Congress and the regulatory agencies charged with overseeing the food supply have worked slowly – very slowly – to address these and other pressing issues as of late. On the other hand, the food industry and retailers have seen the writing on the wall and have started to shift some of their practices, enough at least that they can market their efforts to consumers.
But how extensive are these changes really? Will they address the many systemic hazards and shortcomings in food production and distribution that can harm both our health and the environment?
In recent years, large players in the food and grocery industries have emerged as some of the most significant agents of change on food issues, marketing their initiatives to consumers. Following are a few high-profile food policy developments from major companies and the complications that could accompany a movement led by industry.
One of the major shifts in consumer demand has been a dramatic increase in interest in organic foods. To meet this surge in demand, large food companies are providing financial assistance to farmers who switch from conventional, chemical-intensive farming to an organic approach. The switch to organic farming requires a three-year transition period in which farmers use organic methods, but because they have yet to be certified, can still only sell their crops at conventional prices. However, to incentivize more conventional farms in their supply chain to become organic farms, large food companies are paying organic prices for conventional crops during the three-year transition period. In exchange, farmers sign exclusive contracts, binding them to the large companies.
This model closely resembles a vertical integration model, which is not new in food production. Large poultry and hog companies, like Tyson, use such an approach, owning or controlling the different pieces of the supply chain and setting strict rules for farmers. It's worth noting, however, that the model has led to serious problems for contract growers, who often work for very low prices under rigid standards established by large corporations, and the model has also contributed mightily to pollution problems. As crop farming moves toward a more vertically integrated model, farmers and consumers should be wary of the drawbacks.
Another major food policy development comes from retailers that have committed to switch to cage-free eggs. The influential group includes Walmart, McDonald's, and Costco. This move has been marketed as a major boon for animal welfare, but that doesn't quite tell the entire story. Chickens raised in "cage-free" barns still face tremendous hardships, like reduced air quality, cannibalism, and widespread disease, conditions that consumers may not be aware of. But without stricter animal welfare standards at the federal or state level, large companies can tout their efforts as progressive and not be held accountable for their claims.
Target has also gotten involved in food policy recently, launching an initiative to invest in food-related nonprofits. The company announced at the end of June that it was significantly investing in wellness programs, which promote healthy eating and cooking skills, access to healthy foods, and school gardens. While Target has received praise for this effort, critics note that the company pays its employees the kind of low wages that have been linked to less nutritious diets with fewer fresh fruits and vegetables. Target could further advance the cause it purportedly supports – on a significant scale – by increasing wages for its workers and empowering them to more easily afford healthier foods.
Notwithstanding those very real concerns, such consumer-driven change can be an effective way to accomplish positive reforms, in large part because it can occur quickly and without compromise. But large corporations with big marketing budgets can also mislead consumers into thinking they've gone green, when they've only barely scratched the surface. Until 2010, BP was marketing itself with some success as the energy company that was "Beyond Petroleum." The BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico put an end to that.
Mostly, these various initiatives by industry leaders demonstrate that such reforms are economically viable. To capitalize on that, government needs to act, adopting laws and regulations that drive change farther and deeper into the industry. Otherwise, change will continue, if it continues, on a piecemeal basis – company by company.
Moreover, there are some inherently governmental functions that corporate-led initiatives cannot and will not accomplish. These include leveling the playing field to ensure companies have an equal chance to succeed and ensuring that everyone is abiding by rules designed to protect consumers by safeguarding our health and environment. Corporations, unlike government agencies, usually see themselves as accountable only to shareholders and lack a sense of accountability to the public at large. Further, if a corporation chooses to abandon a promise it made, for example if Walmart were to return to conventional eggs instead of cage-free, consumers would have no way of enforcing the company's original promise.
Those of us concerned with the food system should encourage companies to continue making changes for the better, but we must continue to have high expectations, formed independently of corporate influence, and we should push our representatives in Washington and in our state capitals to pursue systemic, industry-wide change.