Farming and Ranching by Chas Bonner: Healthier eating is good for agriculture as well as people

CHAS BONNER, vice president of business development, Scythe & Space Co., EagleMay 14, 2013 

We are beginning to see a welcome shift in eating habits, and although it's slow, it definitely helps the farming community. Not only is this heralded in the trade press, but there are numerous articles in the popular press extolling healthy eating. From almost every aspect, human beings do much better on a healthy diet, without additives, amendments or excess processing.

About a year ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released an in-depth study illustrating that a healthy diet was also a cheaper diet than a highly processed or junk food diet. One can still find a fast-food restaurant serving a full meal for under $5, but it is generally filled with empty calories. By contrast, one can eat a meal filled with vitamins, minerals and healthy calories by eating fruit, vegetables, whole grains and various meats - and usually at a lower cost.

When considering costs, most economists now include all expenses, not simply the food. Added are processing, packing, shipping, retailing, and finally, preparation. The preparation part is high in fast food, much of that cost being energy. Today it is estimated that 17 percent of America's total energy usage is in food production.

Another cost often associated with fast food is obesity. The rate today is more than 30 percent and expected to rise to 42 percent by 2030. Obesity is now referred to as the "next great epidemic" in America. Sugar-laden foods are quickly digested (simple sugars can bypass the digestive system and go directly into the bloodstream), but hunger returns soon, forcing yet more food intake and more obesity.

Man has evolved over 4 million years, but modern food processing has evolved in only 100-plus years. As a result, we are now eating foods that the human digestive system has not yet evolved to process well. It is the same story with cattle, which evolved eating grasses. Today we feed them with grains that are not well digested, and as a result it takes about 7 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef.

Fortunately, in the past few years, our population has been making a welcome shift in food-consumption habits. People have begun to realize the true cost of food, and not simply the dollar cost. The word "locavore" was added to Webster's dictionary in 2007, and the number of Americans interested in locally grown foods has mushroomed. Local farmers markets have more than doubled in the past decade. The fast growth appears to be associated not only with locally grown and organic, but also with knowledge of the farm and farmer. Even in livestock, there is a focus on reduced inputs that results in lower prices, excellent products and a consumer association with the farm when sold locally.

Other recent developments include urban hothouses, which take up little land but can produce vegetable crops when the plant is in a hanging basket, watered and fed by drip lines using the latest in agricultural technology.

A big surprise in the organic and locally produced trend is that many of the "new" farmers are well-educated and well-read individuals. But instead of focusing on high-tech or high-paying jobs, they are focused on the "high-touch" of intensive agriculture on tiny acreages, growing organic products that sell at farmers markets. And contrary to what might seem expected when the sale is direct from farmer to consumer, the prices at farmers markets are not cheap. Therefore those new farmers can make a living doing what they love to do.

The shift in consumer habits to local, healthy eating is producing a healthier farming community. When there are fewer inputs into the agricultural process, more money arrives at output - in this case, the farm.

Because the world has more and more mouths to feed, but less land on which to grow food, we must become thriftier with all inputs.

We are already seeing same-store sales of most fast-food chains diminish, at least on an inflation-adjusted basis. As a result, more of the food dollar will arrive at the farm. We see this not as a temporary cycle, but as a long-term trend.

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chasb@ag-management.com

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