In a time when racial prejudice and widespread social inequities are finally being acknowledged as unacceptable, I want to draw attention to a kind of systemic injustice we have gotten used to in Iowa. I call it food system brutality.
Food system brutality is when “essential workers” at the meat plant near you are physically and emotionally abused while the meat industry continues to evade public health laws of our nation. It’s when Iowans accept corn fertilizer in their water as normal. It is when some rural Iowans can’t breathe because of air pollution from industrial hog or egg facilities.
When a few corporations decide what crops are subsidized and control the markets for nearly every commodity, not paying farmers fair prices and farm workers fair wages, asphyxiating farm communities — that’s food system brutality. It is the reproductive harms, birth defects, and developmental disorders endured by Iowa families, in part, due to the 50 million pounds of highly hazardous pesticides applied annually to corn and beans in the state.
Food system brutality is when every food venue near you features highly processed, fatty and sugary foods, fueling pandemics of obesity, type two diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, which are mostly food system diseases. Meanwhile, there are huge fruits and vegetable deficits in Iowa; many neighborhoods of my home county do not have adequate access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Are we going to stand by idly as these forms of injustice continue in Iowa? I hope not. We already know how to build better food systems. If we want to see thriving agriculture-based communities and availability of healthy foods around us, we need to support our local and regional food economy at every meal. That means households, restaurants, institutions, schools and hospitals need to rethink how they purchase and prepare food in favor of health and local economic vitality. That means investment in local orchards, vegetable farms, grain processing for local consumption, and distribution facilities.
Take my county: some $90 million dollars arrives annually in Black Hawk and six surrounding counties from USDA in various forms of crop subsidies. Not a penny goes to help fruit and vegetable growers, not a penny helps start a vegetable freezing facility or a small facility for turning soybeans into tofu or wheat into flour or oats into rolled oats, not a penny helps us start a food hub to aggregate local supplies to serve local institutional food buyers like a school district. These food system enterprises create local economic value, support local food and farm businesses, and help us serve ourselves good food.
Creating a just food system requires that we value all workers in the food supply chains and every part of every sector in the food system as well as soil and water stewardship. When I pay $4 for a dozen eggs from farmers I know, I am paying the true cost and a fair price so that others in the food chain can make a living, too. The 99 cents a dozen eggs usually involves cutting corners such as abuse of labor or food contamination outbreak. The current, exploitive “cheap food” system generates poverty everywhere. If we want to end food system brutality we need to support, plan and invest in a just food system.
Farmers and community leaders across Iowa are creating more equitable ways for expanding local markets for local agricultural products, but require all our support to transform our food system. Healthy Harvest of North Iowa, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Feed Iowa First, Iowa Organic Association, Iowa Environmental Council, Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, Center for Rural Affairs and several food hubs are example of Iowa entities striving to establish a better pattern of food and agriculture in Iowa.
My friend Mary Berry who farms in Kentucky sums it all up: “Our country, through its ruinous desire for cheap food, has nearly destroyed the safest food system we could have: farmers feeding the people closest to them. Our customers trust us to provide delicious, healthy, safe food; we trust them to pay us a fair price.”
Kamyar Enshayan is an agricultural engineer and has taught environmental studies at University of Northern Iowa since 1993. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.