Where Does Our Food Come From?
By Christopher Raines, Ph.D., Assistant Professor—Meat Science, The Pennsylvania State University
“The farm” and “the supermarket” are both correct answers because they are both key components of the contemporary food system. In many circumstances, raw materials for food items leave the farm, are processed or refined by intermediaries and ultimately reach the end user via the supermarket.
There is no simple answer to the question, “Where does our food come from?”
The food system is complex and dynamic. It is a well-choreographed production by retailers, distributors, processors and farmers—with nearly 7 billion influencers. Each system segment needs to have a voice as our food system continues to be a popular topic of discussion.
Watching “agvocacy” efforts expand and passions build, I have lost count of the number of farmers and ranchers determined to connect directly with consumers to answer food questions. There is a problem with this, though. I do not know of an average consumer who purchases live cows, pigs or chickens, yellow dent corn or dry soybeans at the supermarket.
All players in this system rely upon each another to exist—and yes, it all starts with farmers—yet in order to have a comprehensive discussion about the contemporary food system each one must have a say. It seems that there is a communication volley going back and forth between farmers and consumers, arching over a massive portion of the overall food industry, thereby perpetuating the myth that much of our food goes straight from the farmer to the consumer. As we progress toward “feeding the world” and continually making our food system as productive, efficient and safe as possible, everyone along the food production chain will have a role.
It is important that non-farm/non-consumer stakeholders in the food system contribute to discussions on this subject for a couple of reasons.
First, we know we have to double food production in a very short period of time and we also know that approximately one-third of food produced today is wasted. Minimizing that waste is possible through improved food processing, distribution and storage capabilities, not enhanced farm output. This means that improvement of the food system after raw products leave the farm will play an integral role in feeding the growing population.
Second, it has been repeated to the point of becoming accepted fact that the U.S. has the “safest food supply in the world,” although information supporting this does not readily exist. A 2008 study from the University of Regina is the closest thing I have found to such a report—and the U.S. ranks seventh among industrialized countries. A lack of traceability back to the farm is a reason the U.S. was not ranked higher. Traceability is possible through system-wide communication, but we’re not there yet in the U.S.
Healthy, wholesome food items leave the farm, are processed into safe, edible products, and the distributor and retailer must maintain that product integrity. The contemporary food system is a miracle, not only because of its bounty, but also because of how many different cooperating people it takes to make it work.