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Prosperous small family farms needed to protect food supply

by The Rodale Institute

(July 17, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- The nation’s current system of food distribution is so vulnerable that products adulterated by terrorists could be spread throughout the U.S. in a matter of days, according to a report that we released today.*

The introduction by terrorists of noxious or lethal materials into foods or beverages could result in undetected, rapid and widespread distribution within a system that relies on a handful of large food production, processing and distribution firms. The Rodale Institute report suggests that decentralizing the system and using small farms to create multiple redundant food supply systems would lessen threats to food security. In the statement, “Regarding the Creation of a Department of Homeland Security,” released June 6, 2002, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman stated that “[government agencies] must protect our food and agriculture supply against any threat that could harm consumers or our farm sector.”

“The current farm and food system is focused on mega-distribution firms, mass production and reduced cost per unit,” says Anthony Rodale, chairman of The Rodale Institute. “In addition to being vulnerable to terrorist attacks, this system makes it exceedingly difficult for small family farms to compete against their large, multinational counterparts. To achieve long-term food security and improve human and environmental health, small family farms must survive and grow. This specially commissioned report reveals how we can help them achieve that,” he says.

According to the report, decentralizing production and distribution systems by beefing up support for a nationwide network of small farms is the key to preserving the nation’s food supply. First, small farms must become sustainable, says the report, which offers farmers ideas for achieving economic profitability and a larger share of the consumer’s food dollar. To develop profitable methodologies, small family farmers must learn to operate with the kind of ingenuity and strategic thinking used in traditional business. Suggestions include growing value-added crops, certified organic products, and crops grown without genetically modified organisms (GMOs), as well as marketing to local consumers.

Preserving the identity of crops to meet the emerging market for non-GMO grain and oilseed crops, especially in Europe and Asia, will aid small farmers, says the report. As the likelihood of GMO labeling increases, farmers who can verify that their commodities are non-GMO products can obtain higher margins. This also holds true for certified organic products, with the organic world marketplace expected to triple in size by 2010.

*Methods to Develop Markets to Improve Profitability of Small Family Farms in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey, commissioned by The Rodale Institute, costs $19.95 plus shipping and handling. Contact The Rodale Institute Bookstore at (610) 683-6009.

Vital Farming Statistics

  • · Only 20 cents of each dollar spent on food goes to U.S. farmers.
  • · It is estimated that 98 percent of all U.S. farms are family farms.
  • · One-half of U.S. farms have annual sales less than $10,000, but small family farms hold 69 percent of U.S. farm assets and own 68 percent of the nation’s farmland.
  • · More than 25,000 farms go out of business each year.(1)
  • · Very large factory farms make up only 3 percent of the total farms but contribute more than 40 percent of the output.

The Rodale Institute (http://www.rodaleinstitute.org) is a nonprofit charity located in Kutztown, Penn. The Institute shares its expertise on organic/regenerative farming methods with people worldwide to achieve a regenerative food system that renews environmental and human health. “Healthy Soil, Healthy Food, Healthy People®” has been The Rodale Institute’s message for the past 54 years. Largely funded by donations from individuals, government agencies, private foundations and corporations, The Rodale Institute promotes soil quality practices to farmers worldwide and provides educational programs for children — the generation for change. The Rodale Institute will launch its New Farm® online training program for farmers in fall 2002. Its Kid’s Re-generation™ Resource Network can be found at http://www.kidsregen.org.

1. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Statistics Board, National Agricultural Statistics Service, Statistical Bulletin No. 895.