In today's food products, we like to tag certain words to packaging — food labels. Currently, there are dozens if not hundreds of different food labels. To name a few, these include:
Fair Trade Certified
Animal Welfare Approved
Rainforest Alliance Certified
Certified Naturally Grown
Land to Market
The general sentiment of folks in ag regarding these labels? Hoopla. (Sorry, food marketers!) While some have legal definitions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, many do not.
While this is the current state of our food systems, it's no secret humans have a long history of constant change in food structure. One such shift was the move from hunter-gatherers to regular farming. During this time, if you were hungry in the morning, you could go get something to eat almost right away by either hunting or gathering. At worst, you'd get fed within a few days.
There were several disadvantages to farming 10,000 years ago, when society went from hunter-gatherers to modern agriculture. Farming is a longer-term proposition. If you were hungry in the morning, you could go get something to eat almost right away. Or at worst, a few days. Farming on the other hand, you would have had to shift your perspective that first year or first few years to working up to eight hours a day for months before you were able to reap the harvest. A far cry from your landscape being your ever regenerative food pantry.
Farming also would require a person to stay put. If the rains didn't work out, or the rains were too much, or the test weight was too low (just kidding, they didn't measure test weight), and they had a crop failure, the consequences could have been severe! In a nomadic scenario — sans farming — humans could have just moved 10s of miles away to find other food sources.
Additionally, there is the security aspect. Having to stay in a single spot could have made farmers back then weak, predictable prey for other societies that were solely hunter-gathers and more mobile.
On top of all these external threats, our farming predecessors would have had to invent food storage capabilities — storing enough to get from one harvest to another. I'm not sure that a moist cave is the best way to store wheat.
If you are a reader of my column in the past or have visited my speaking engagements, you by now realize that the velocity of change in our society, our time on earth, is much faster than it was during hunter-gatherer days. I couldn't comment on how long it took to go from hunter-gatherer to being a farming-based society; hundreds or thousands of years maybe? For reference, the United States is roughly 243 years old. I'm guessing it took longer to go from primarily hunter-gatherer to farming than the United States has been in existence. And yet, we have seen incredible change just in the last decade — let alone during the existence of the United States.
This notion brings us full circle. There has been an increasing amount of food labeling, diet preferences and even a general change in the agricultural supply chain. These preferential changes generally have required re-tooling of farms and ag. My family and I have been discussing what organic could look like on our farm and changes that would have to be implemented for years to get there. In fact, it takes so long and the demand is that high that the food label "transitional" was created to bridge the gap. There are even banks that have created transitional operating loans to help farmers bridge that gap.
Fully integrated farms, especially in milk, have allowed for greater efficiency and the ability, in some cases, to make the claims that are on these ever-changing food labels possible. But these changes have led to major bankruptcies like Dean Foods, too.
Like it or not, change is coming. It happened to hunter-gatherers and it's happening to us. Currently, other parts of the supply chain, without farmers, are controlling the conversations to the end consumers of our products.
The question is, can a redefined system bridge the gap enough over the next several years or decades that ad infinitum labels could be created, if so chosen, and at the same time be truthful — no matter the whims, changing dietary preferences, or even shifting growing preferences (like not plowing over the rainforest for soybeans)?
Some of the long-range projects at Bushel are defining exactly this by bringing farmers back into the conversation and using our technological knowhow to reconnect a once harmonized industry; which includes the ability for farmers to not only deliver on promises made by food manufacturers, but to actually inform food manufactures of what can be accomplished.
After all, we (farmers) are the experts.