The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory

Food Inc. and the Economic Piece of The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project
August 21, 2009, 4:36 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized


“We all have choices when it comes to what we buy, and that means we have the power of our purchases. The grocery check-out is much like a voting booth, where we can vote for organic or not, pesticides or not, artificial flavors or not,” says Gary Hirshberg, chairman, president and CEO of the organic yogurt producer Stonyfield Farm in the movie Food Inc. As many have already seen or heard, the film lifts the veil on our nation’s food industry by exploring the incredibly inhumane conditions of animals and workers trapped in the industrial food system as well as presenting the detrimental costs the system has on our public health and environment. Hirshberg, who is featured in the film as an organic, sustainable producer of food that sells to international conglomerates such as Wal-Mart, offers the most empowering message – consumer choices play a vital role in changing the current industrial agricultural system. Hirshberg points to consumers’ rejection of milk from cows treated with artificial bovine growth hormone as an example of consumer power: “Retailers and processors are now selling or using rBST-free milk as a result of what their customers are demanding. Positive change is possible, when enough of us demand it.” His message is not a particularly new or creative one; if the public demands a product, the store will supply it because they know it will ultimately sell. In light of people’s emerging interest in how their food is produced and where it’s coming from, Hirshberg’s philosophy seems like one of the most realistic ways the public can begin to change the industrial food system.

Increasing amounts of people are choosing to shop at farmers markets.  According to USDA data, the number of farmers markets have grown from 2,863 in 2000 to 4,685 in 2008. Customers are seeking out places to buy food from the people who produced it and this often means from the farmers who practice sustainable agriculture methods.  Direct sales opportunities allow customers to learn exactly how their food was grown or raised.  Were fertilizers and pesticides used? Were the animals treated humanely? Does the farmer use ecologically sound land management practices? At farmers markets, customers are getting answers to these questions and voting in support of their local farmer with their family’s food dollar. President Obama is showing his support too; in an unprecedented move he announced earlier this week that there are plans to organize a farmers market outside of The White House.

In addition to seeking out farmers markets, customers are asking for more access to local produce in traditional grocery stores. Increasingly, produce managers are hearing from customers looking for foods they know are produced in the area. As Hirshberg expresses in Food Inc, the more that customers express their interest in buying local fruits, vegetables and value-added farm products, the more they’re likely to see them at their neighborhood grocer.

The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project is looking at the economic components of local food systems.  If customers are voting through their shopping habits, what kind of impact does this have economically? Mitch Renkow, an Agriculture and Resource Economics Professor at NC State University, leads the group of researchers working on this aspect of the project. They are reviewing available information on the current level of and trends in farmer participation in farmers’ markets and farmer sales to restaurants as well as other institutional customers throughout North Carolina and nationally. The review will provide a baseline for understanding the relative scale of local food systems in the overall agricultural economy currently and in the near future. This understanding will be necessary to gauge the likely impacts of potential policy interventions aimed at promoting local food systems. Researchers are collecting key information from farmers, trying to understand what motivates them to produce for local markets, what products they are selling, prices of their food, how production practices differ for marketing locally versus non-locally, as well as the profitability of orienting their activities locally versus non-locally. This will provide insight into the attractiveness to producers of orienting their production and marketing activities toward participation in local food systems. The information will also shed light on which types of locally marketed crops are likely to be profitable to generate significant involvement in local food systems. Researchers are also collecting information from consumers at farmers’ markets with the intent to get a sense of what leads people to shop at markets instead of other retail outlets such as grocery stores and discount food stores. Factors such as price, attributes of foods and shopping experience will be considered. The importance of different factors will provide information to future local producers and farmer’s markets to help attract customers and increase sales.

Ultimately, Hirshberg’s message in Food Inc. resounded with me; we have the power to choose what kind of industry and producers we would like to support each time we buy food. As we gather survey results and glean new economic information through the Gillings Project, I look forward to learning about farmers, consumers, and both of their choices.  If you enjoyed Food Inc, and would like to learn more about other films related to sustainable agriculture and food systems, please check out the list below. Also, click here to link to an amazing database of books and films related to community, food and agriculture. It is maintained by Phillip H. Howard PhD of Michigan State University.

Fresh – A film that celebrates the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are re-inventing our food system with sustainable practices.

Fuel – A portrait of America’s addiction to oil and an uplifting testament to the immediacy of new energy solutions.

The Garden -Tells the story of the country’s largest urban farm, backroom deals, land developers, green politics, money, poverty, power, and racial discord. The film explores and exposes the fault lines in American society and raises crucial and challenging questions about liberty, equality, and justice for the poorest and most vulnerable among us.

Ingredients -A seasonal exploration of the local food movement. At the focal point of this movement, and of this film, are the farmers and chefs who are creating a truly sustainable food system. Their collaborative work has resulted in great tasting food and an explosion of consumer awareness about the benefits of eating local.

Polycultures: Food Where We Live– Takes off from where Food Inc. left of. Talks about appealing alternatives to the industrial food system and positive actions any audience member can enjoy putting into practice.

Sludge Diet – A documentary about sludge fertlizer – what was dumped in the ocean until it killed fish and other ocean life and how now its being spread on farmlands in North Carolina

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