Understanding the Facts in the Food Market

Printed in the Live Fresh Live Local Tab of The Times Observer, and Juliette Enfield, Penn State Extension Educator, Ag Entrepreneurship

July 16, 2014

Today making the decision about what food to buy is a challenging one. There are many concerns about human health and the health of the environment. One study found that 92% of consumers consider healthier lifestyle habits and effects on the environment when making purchases (Hartman, 2011). Of course, some customers are more heavily involved in sustainable purchasing than others. But what exactly does sustainable mean? There is not an easy answer.

Eating Locally Grown Foods

Eating locally grown foods is a way to support local businesses and eat high quality food. It also means eating with the seasons: strawberries in June, pumpkins in October, and maybe even giving up those tasty items that cannot be grown locally such as pineapple or avocado. In terms of economics, how do you determine whether local purchases really keep money locally or not? Several economic analyses have addressed this question. They have found that small local businesses do provide greater long term economic growth than their larger national or multi-national counterparts (Penn State News, 2011). Small local businesses (10-99 employees owned by residents or businesses with headquarters in the same state) tend to hire within the community and rely on other small local businesses for their business needs. Large companies tend to be self-reliant when it comes to accounting, manufacturing, shipping, legal needs, etc. However, this is not just a case of good guy versus bad guy. The economic benefit of locally owned businesses diminishes as the business grows. This is a natural part of business growth and expansion. Another natural part of business growth and expansion is the shift from high quality to high quantity. This is why the food at large box stores is cheaper than when you purchase it directly from a local farmer, but it may not be as flavorful or unique. Large businesses and small businesses definitely have their distinctions, and it is up to you to decide what kind of food purchase you are willing to make.

The GMO Debate

GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. A genetically modified organism is created through a laboratory process in which genes with desirable traits are inserted into plant genes in order to create resistance to diseases which could otherwise devastate a crop. Genetically modified organisms in agriculture include plants such as corn, wheat, rice, soy, cotton and many fruits and vegetables. Humans have been breeding plants for desirable traits for thousands of years, so why is genetic modification so controversial? Genetically modifying foods is a revolutionary technology that started being used in the 90s, and since then many profound questions have been raised about where exactly this movement is headed. These genetically modified organisms are patented by the companies that create them. Concerns include gene ownership, few players in the seed patenting industry, and the effects of GMO plants on the environment. Because of these concerns, consumers are currently pushing for the labeling of genetically modified foods and food products so that they can choose whether to purchase them or not.

Food Safety

Every year 1 in 6 Americans gets sick from consuming food or beverages that are contaminated with bacteria or viruses. These bacteria and viruses can come from humans, from animals, and from the environment. There have been many incidences of bacteria and viruses being spread from food that is moved in large volumes and passed through a complex supply chain. In 2011, 100 people in 26 states became sick from eating cantaloupes tainted with the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes. Officials said that the likely cause of contamination was from cleaning equipment that was not properly sanitized (LaJeunesse, 2014). Incidents like this have weakened consumer confidence in our global food economy, in which the consumer is far removed from the farms where their food was produced. Concerns like these have caused consumers to want to see where their food is coming from, which is one reason why small locally farmed food has grown in popularity. However, there are still food safety concerns even with small local producers. Food safety is a very real concern, and any business must have the confidence of their consumers to be successful.

What are Organic foods?

Consumers are not only concerned with bacteria and viruses making them ill, but there is also a concern about pesticide residue creeping in to our bodies or our ecosystems without us knowing it. "Organic" is a term that was not officially recognized by the US Government until the 90s. Today, for a farm to be called organic, they must follow certain procedures that enhance biodiversity on the farm and minimize off-farm inputs such as fertilizers or pesticides. The farm must also go through a rigorous ongoing inspection process through the USDA and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. There are also requirements for eggs to be labeled as "cage-free", chicken to be labeled "free range", and for beef to be labeled "grass-fed". Because of the time and money involved in gaining to rights to this label, or because some farmers disprove of the requirements, farmers have created their own certifying labels such as Certified Naturally Grown, or Pesticide Free. And there are many more labels than just the ones that I have mentioned here, each one with its own set of standards and practices. Are you confused yet as to what you will accept and what you will not? All businesses must have competition, and in the process, these marketing messages can be confusing. One of the best advantages of shopping at a farmers market or farm stand is that you can actually talk directly to the farmer and ask them about their farm practices.

As you can see, the answer to sustainability is a complicated one. However, there is one common thread through all of these issues, and that is the desire of the modern consumer to know where their food is coming from. If it has been a while since you were at a farm, I recommend making a trip to meet a farmer soon. In Warren County, there are 830 farms, and many of them belong to our friends and neighbors. Seeing the farm and meeting the farmer will give you greater confidence when considering what kind of food to buy. For a list of farms in Warren County, visit the WarrenAg website at www.warrenag.org.

Hartman, H. 2011. "Trends in Consumer Demand". The Hartman Group. http://vsp.lf.dk/~/media/Files/Kongres%202011/Indlaeg%20fra%20foredragsholdere/Foredrag20_HarveyHartman.ashx Accessed June 30, 2014.
LaJeunesse, S. "Outbreak". Penn State AgScience Magazine. Spring 2014. The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
Penn State News. "Locally owned small businesses pack powerful economic punch." August 2011. http://news.psu.edu/story/156452/2011/08/04/research/locally-owned-small-businesses-pack-powerful-economic-punch Accessed July 3, 2014.

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WarrenAg.org is a project of The Future of Warren County Agriculture Task Force - a community-based program supported by Penn State Extension - Warren County to help residents and farmers respond to the challenges facing agriculture in Warren County Pennsylvania.

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