Before the food industry makes a serious move toward “sustainable” practices, it needs a concrete definition of the term, along with consumer demand data that offers real profit opportunities to each member of the food system (retail, farming, food processing, etc.).
Sustainable = Local + Organic + Pasture + Profit
For us in the colder parts of the Missouri Valley, our definition combines pasture-based production of organic meat, dairy and poultry with enough grain to feed hogs and chickens, and enough hay to winter cattle and sheep. The hilly and more erodible land near the Missouri River will benefit from pasture-based agriculture, along with local economies. Further, farm profits will improve because production costs for meat and dairy (with intensive pasture management) and processing costs (with modern facilities close to population centers) will be less than the same costs in the conventional food system. Less grain, less fuel and more income from farmer-controlled food brands are the main elements in this equation.
By definition, animals raised on pasture require only small amounts of non-GMO grain, which makes continuous confinement feeding unnecessary and expensive. Over time, diversified food systems that integrate different food groups in close proximity to one-another will rival monoculture unit costs. For example, commercial gardens can use well-composted manure from near-by dairies while hay and small grains can be produced in continuous rotations with non-GMO corn, soybeans, alfalfa and new pasture. Further, composted commercial food wastes from near-by population centers can help rebuild soils and reduce landfill costs for institutions, restaurants and grocery stores.
Jobs and Brand Partnerships
Large and local sustainable food systems could also bring new living wage jobs with safe working conditions in fields and packinghouses, particularly if these operations are located near big cities where decent jobs are in short supply. The quality of these jobs depends on the ability of farmers, contractors and food processors to access large amounts of risk capital to finance advanced technologies that reduce labor costs and food prices. Local brand partnerships offer excellent platforms to negotiate technology investments, wages, working conditions, farm profits and food prices.
Food Miles and Food Security
As farmer-controlled sustainable food brands capture market share, they will begin to eliminate “food mile” costs from grocery stores prices. Improved food security is another important benefit. Food safety and environmental issues will not change significantly with sustainable agriculture. However, improved early detection of health and environmental threats will reduce overall regulatory costs if state and local authorities adopt cross training in multiple environmental and health disciplines.
The main barriers to large-scale sustainable food production and processing are a lack of proven consumer demand, and start-up complexity. For example, Omaha area farmers will not produce pasture-raised chickens in any numbers without access to a USDA-inspected processing facility that can be scaled up to supply branded, certified organic products to high-end grocery stores. Investors and lenders can be forgiven if they hesitate to finance these operations without reliable demand data.
The first steps toward these data require consumers to understand the basic issues, particularly the environmental, health and economic importance of local, pasture-based food systems. They must also have access to locally grown products that are similar to imported products in quality and price. Consumer education and product development go hand in hand. Simply talking about food system sustainability is not productive. Local products must be available in amounts that can meet continually increasing demand.
Building consumer support need not be complex and expensive. It starts with three key elements: 1) Small production units with local or on-farm processing, 2) Full cost accounting, and 3) A serious investment in marketing. If you build it, they will not come if they don’t know about it. Marketing is the key. CSA’s, farmers markets, local investment clubs, churches, business groups, etc. are all great places to meet like-minded urban consumers and potential investors.
Next, if demand is good at prices close to organic imports, the local brand partners will need to start raising large amounts of money on a continuous basis to: 1) Train and equip additional producers, 2) Build USDA-inspected processing in near-by cities, and 3) Finance ever more marketing campaigns.