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Unfair Food Pricing Is Killing Family Farms and Regenerative Farming

Insights + Opinion
Unfair Food Pricing Is Killing Family Farms and Regenerative Farming
Carbon farming on an organic farm. A cover crop of buckwheat in flower on permanent beds with grass strips between the beds to reduce tillage and provide habitat for beneficial insects. Elizabeth Henderson

By Elizabeth Henderson

In February, a dairy farmer friend sent me a note confiding that a few farmers she knows are living on cereal until their milk checks arrive. Yet, the recently released census of agriculture shows that the number of young farmers is growing even as the average age of farmers also increases, and there are uplifting articles about young black farmers connecting with the land and enjoying the self-empowerment that comes with being an independent farmer.


Meanwhile, voices are rising about the central role that regenerative and organic farming can play in a Green New Deal, a program to mobilize all possible forces to prevent climate disaster.

How can we make sense of these conflicting currents? What policies and programs will create a just transition for family-scale farmers? What changes will enable farmers to maximize the potential of photosynthesis for putting carbon in the soil to supplement reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in mitigating climate disaster?

Farmers who are constantly worrying about financial viability have little bandwidth for new practices or long-term improvements that take initial investments. As Robert Leonard and Matt Russell noted in an opinion piece in The New York Times:

"Government programs like the current farm bill pit production against conservation, and doing the right thing for the environment is a considerable drain on a farmer's bank account, especially when so many of them are losing money to low commodity prices and President Trump's tariffs."

The farm debt crisis of the 1980s never completely went away and has now resurfaced with a vengeance. In 2017, aggregate farm earnings were half of what they were in 2013 due to vast overproduction of basic commodities, and farm income has not recovered. The North American Free Trade Agreement resulted in the loss of mid-sized and smaller farms in all three signatory countries as integrated production and marketing favored larger farms.

Since 1950, the U.S. has gone from 5.4 million farms to just over 2 million, a loss of more than 3 million farms, with important shifts from many smaller integrated farms to fewer large, more specialized farms that grow even larger. For dairy farms in particular, these have been hard times as illustrated by the losses in the two top dairy states. New York State has lost 20 percent of its dairy farms in the past five years. Wisconsin lost 691 dairy farms in 2018.

While the persistence and shrewd maneuvering of organizations like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Organic Coalition meant that programs that support organic and sustainable farming fared remarkably well in the 2018 Farm Bill, the bulk of the more than 500-page bill carries on with business as usual, even making it easier for big farms to get bigger by failing to cap the payments any one farm can receive and allowing more relatives to cash in on programs in the bill.

Both mainstream parties advocate the neoliberal, free-trade policies that the ever more aggregated seed, food and chemical corporations have imposed upon the U.S. since World War II to the detriment of family-scale farms all over the world. The dairy farmers who got through the winter eating cereal and the new farmers who are eagerly starting out are in urgent need of radical change.

Why is this happening? Political economist and author Eric Holt Giménez would say this is just capitalism working as it is supposed to. Faced with slim margins in the race to cover farm expenses, farmers produce more, and that drives prices down even further. The beneficiaries are the ever-larger corporations that have consolidated their dominance in the food sector. The result? Shoppers pay more, and a shrinking portion of what they pay goes to farmers.

At first, this mainly hit conventional farms; then in 2017, organic processors started limiting the amount of milk they purchased from organic dairies and cut the price paid below the cost of production. As a result, family-scale farms of all kinds are going out of business, and tragically, there are increasing reports of farmer suicides.

Graphic source: Agricultural Economic Insights (used with permission)

If you juxtapose the Agricultural Economic Insights chart with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) chart above showing the declining number of farms, it is clear that loss of farm income corresponds with the loss of farms. More than half of U.S. farm households lost money farming in recent years, according to the USDA, which estimated that median farm income for U.S. farm households was negative $1,553 in 2018.

Farm incomes have dropped despite record productivity on U.S. farms because oversupply drives down commodity prices. Through a plethora of racist policies, black farmers have lost land at more than five times the rate of white farmers from the peak of black farmland ownership in 1910 until the 1990s. Meanwhile, profits in consolidated food businesses (farm inputs, retail stores) remain high with returns on investment ranging from 8 to 35 percent. Clearly, there is plenty of money in food: It just does not get apportioned fairly to the people who do the actual work.

Programs to train new farmers, especially veterans, get media attention and funding, but as the National Young Farmers Coalition repeats tirelessly, land in most parts of the country is too expensive for a farmer to buy with farm earnings. USDA data show that farm families have a middle-class income, but only on the largest farms growing a few commodities is that income from farm earnings.

So, while presidential candidates and Green New Dealers are putting bold proposals on the table for public discourse, farmers, farmworkers and concerned eaters should take the opportunity to hammer out proposals that will solve the structural issues that have turned U.S. farming into a problem instead of the win-win-win solutions that are possible.

Declaring that she wants "Washington to work for family farmers again," Sen. Elizabeth Warren promises to take some steps in the right direction by breaking up vertically integrated trusts, allowing farmers themselves to repair the equipment they purchase, ensuring that contracts for livestock farmers are fair, reinvigorating country of origin labeling, and restricting foreign ownership of farmland.

Sen. Bernie Sanders goes much further, outlining a program that would completely restructure the food system so that farmers can make a living and afford to pay living wages to employees. These are the policies this country needs if we hope to keep family-scale farming.

When farmers can afford to adopt regenerative organic practices, they will take more carbon out of the air and put it in the soil where it builds soil health, making the people and livestock who eat those crops healthier. The original New Deal's parity pricing also fueled the soil conservation that ended the dust bowl.

Farmers can focus on carbon farming if the price they receive in the marketplace covers the costs of running their farms. Family-scale farmers and the people who want to eat locally grown food all need a fair Green New Deal for the 21st century.

Elizabeth Henderson farmed at Peacework Farm in Wayne County, New York, for more than 30 years. Peacework CSA was one of the first community-supported agriculture farms in New York State. She is a member of the Board the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) of New York, and represents the NOFA Interstate Council on the Board of the Agricultural Justice Project. Elizabeth is the lead author of Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen's Guide to Community Supported Agriculture (Chelsea Green, 2007), with a Spanish language e-book edition in 2017. She maintains the blog The Prying Mantis.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute, and originally published by Truthout.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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