At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

What happens when food is valued as a commodity first, a source of nutrition last?

by Meri Ratzel

This past month I was fortunate to spend time with friends at the National Family Farm Coalition. For three days we discussed the messages consumers need to hear to support programs that create a better food system.

Current strategies to educate consumers via Fair Food, Buy Local, and branding campaigns have taken good steps to highlight inequity, but haven't yet effectively put a face on the problem. We still don't know what percentage of a dollar goes to our food producers, nor do we know the percentage that goes to those who sell it.

Fact: The current price paid for production cannot support a farming or fishing family.Neither can it support those who work for farmers or fishermen. Current food prices cannot provide a living wage to a farm worker or a crewman, either. We need to ask what percentage of the price we pay is returned to the farmer/fisherman who cares for the resource that gives us our food.

FactA farmer or a fisherman forced to produce more food for less return manifests itself in our communities as poverty, pollution and environmental degradation. And whether it's land grabs or quota consolidation, for food producers, the cost of doing business keeps climbing.

Fact: Our political climate abets this process when SNAP benefits and conservation measures are the first things eliminated in the current iteration of the Farm Bill. These social protection programs are being sacrificed to secure greater profit for the commodity buyers of our milk, meat and vegetables. These commodity buyers/sellers compete in global markets that sell “cheap food” at a loss to the farmer and the fisherman.

FactUnder the current system, food is exploited as a commodity. Attempts to address the nutritional needs of our communities have been halted by powerful interests that exert influence on our legislators. Food is  valued as an item of trade first, and a source of nutrition last. The true value of our food is primarily aimed at the expense of the people who produce it. 

We need to provide a fair price for our farmers and our fishermen that promises them a livelihood, and restore access to good food in our rural communities and inner cities. We need to create a community of broad support that includes citizens-consumers to create a culture of change – as I heard it at the conference. 

Citizens need to resist these trends! More people need to advocate for legislation that measures food in the community values of health and environment . We need to change the current food system into one that serves the basic needs of all working people. Food is not a commodity. It is a basic human right.

-Meri Ratzel is a Cape Cod-based food and fisheries activist with a biology background. She started the Cape's first Community Supported Fishery program and is currently working on projects to improve local food systems and fisheries research.


  1. Meri - great post and I love the passion. You should know that Ashoka is pioneering a Nutrient Economy initiative which attempts to place a value on nutrients as a response to some of these challenges. You can find them promoting their thing on Business Fights Poverty blog. I’m sure there is other reasoning too, however, their model is based on Michael Porter’s ideas of shared value. I bring this up because in business schools, this is the guru of thought when it comes to how businesses ‘capture value’ from things. It also touches on your first Fact point which I thought I would share my thoughts on.

    I agree that whatever price we pay for most of our products does not make it down to the producer – I think that’s common across most things food, in America at least (and this is in part due to an urban bias towards low prices of food too, btw – for instance, look at any grocery store Yelp review and you’ll see price as one of the variables coming up in every post). I think what strikes me is that much of why prices aren’t passed down to the producer is the viewpoint from which shared value and other analysis (like Porter’s 5-forces framework) originate. The very essence of these models looks through a lens of the MNC or large corporation; therefore if they are the ones who are determining what’s happening in the value chain of any food product, they ultimately control and therefore take out a large portion of that price paid for the fish or food product (moving towards the term vertical integration; or power over the vendor/supplier).

    I think that our challenge today is to build better models of business that turn upside down this idea that producers are always the ones to be squeezed (…out). So for instance, the idea of direct trade is one example that takes product direct from source to consumer, without all the middle stuff (bureaucracy, large capital expenditures, lack of transparency, large warehouse and distribution systems, etc.); and this can happen more easily because of technology (i.e. via a website or phone). Another option is to promote local economy/local enterprise (see Jane Jacobs) but this still doesn’t rid us of the political problem, but it might shift how we look and talk about issues related to food. This isn’t a panacea, but there is quantifiable data that tells us why prices the way they are and how much is capture by the firm (a large portion; this conversation could quickly delve into our financial system too…but I digress)…

  2. I'm glad you wrote, and sorry it's taken me this long to reply....I just came back from Farm Aid; and had many conversations with commodity farmers, pork, beef, and milk. I'm finding so many models popping up in seafood that my head spins because every one is a learning curve for me.
    I have been looking at shared values, and like the idea of seeing value distributed at points in production.

    One thing I did think about this weekend though is what's different and what's the same with farmers. This is me thinking out loud - fish are a public resource, and the prices that people see on the auction that are paid to the fishermen do not reflect the cost he/she may have to pay for access - the permits, the quota...they are hidden costs; they're the same deal as locked in contracts for farmers....but farmers own their land. And the intense push to produce more coming from agribusiness devalues their own investments, natural capital degradation etc. ----

    Fishermen without capital investment are forced to pay for the access in order to deliver a public resource to the consumer.....I hear people all the time talking about community partnerships, permit banks trusts etc. But I'm not sure these value the cost of a fisherman's labor to bring good food.

    Just thoughts --- but an added aside; coming from Mercedes in Kansas....she sees it as no different than farmers who need access to water --- the water rights passing under the Oglala aquifer....