Would a tax on sugared drinks make Americans skinnier? Are local foods more energy efficient? What's the future of organic food production? The U.S. Department of Agriculture has answers.
We call it the “gut beat” here at the Yonder. These are the stories about food — how it’s raised, shipped, sold and, yes, eaten.
People take the gut beat seriously. Read here about two Portland, Oregon, chefs who got into a scrap about provenance of a porker.
In the last several weeks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service has been active on the gut beat. The economists at USDA have produced three reports on food — everything from how blueberries are grown and sold in Oregon to whether a soft drink consumption tax would trim some of the excess poundage off the national waistline.
We’ve read these reports and below is a summary. Of course, if you want to see the full study, just follow the links.
Taxing Big Gulps?
Yes, you’ll be interested in knowing, if there were a federal tax on sugared soft drinks, consumption would drop and so would the pounds. The report is titled “Taxing Caloric Sweetened Beverages: Potential Effects on Beverage Consumption, Calorie Intake, and Obesity.”
Here’s the deal, according to a report: Americans consume an average of 22.5 teaspoons of added sugar per day, enough sweet stuff to totally account for the 2,400-calorie diet recommended by nutritionists. And half of that sugar comes from sodas and fruit drinks.
What would happen if the price of the tankards of soft drinks glugged by Americans went up by, say, 20 percent? ERS economists believe a hefty 20% tax would decrease the consumption of sugared drinks by 37 calories a day for adults and by 43 calories a day for children.
The ERS assumes that a pound of human fat has about 3,500 calories, so the tax would knock 3.8 pounds off the average adult and 4.5 pounds off of little Bubba.
With a tax, the percentage of overweight adults would drop from 66.9 to 62.4.
Eating Local, Growing Local
The story foodies tell themselves (and others within earshot) is that eating local is better for their health, better for the economy and better for the environment. Don’t get some folks started on “food miles” — the distance an apple or a t-bone steak travels from where it’s raised to your plate. People will swear that the fewer the food miles, the less energy is used.
The ERS has produced a lengthy report titled “Comparing the Structure, Size, and Performance of Local and Mainstream Food Supply Chains.” The study attempts to answer questions about “eating local” through case studies. The study examines milk sales around Washington, DC; blueberries in Portland; beef in Minneapolis; leafy greens in Sacramento; and apples in Syracuse. In each study, the economists surveyed direct marketing, small stores and food sold through the big chains.
Not surprisingly, all the markets worked differently. In all cases, however, those farms that sold directly to consumers (mostly through farmers’ markets) retained a higher percentage of the food dollar. But they also paid for marketing help, processing and all the other costs of bringing products to consumers.
Still, in no case did net revenues for direct marketers fall below those of producers who sold into the mainstream markets. And revenues for some sales were seven times above those received in the mainstream chains. For instance, the $3.33 a pound one Portland-area grower received for his blueberries at a farmers market was roughly four times that received by other Oregon growers who deliver their product to packing houses.
“For nearly all of the local supply chains, revenues per unit retained by producers, net of marketing costs, are significantly higher in local supply chains than in mainstream chains,” the ERS reported.
The ERS found that with direct marketing, nearly all the income stayed within the community. But local areas retained a large share of the wages and income produced within the big market supply chains, too.
There was less evidence that eating local — thereby lowering “food miles” — reduced the energy it took to transport product to market. For instance, beef slaughtered out of state and then sold in Minneapolis cost less in energy to transport than beef grown and packaged locally.
“Products in local supply chains travel fewer miles from farms to consumers, but fuel use per unit of product in local chains can be greater than in the corresponding mainstream chains,” the ERS found. “In these cases, greater fuel efficiency per unit of product is achieved with larger loads and logistical efficiencies that outweigh longer distances.”
The least energy was used by the intermediate markets, the small grocery chains that combine local produce with some economies of scale.
Lowdown on Organics
Sales of organic foods have increased from $3.6 billion in 1997 to $21.1 billion in 2008. The number of acres devoted to organic production doubled from 2000 to 2008, to 4.6 million acres. Organic food, however, accounted for only 3.5% of the food sold for consumption in the home in 2009.
More than two-thirds of American shoppers buy organic foods every so often; 28% buy organic products every week. The ERS’s report “Emerging Issues in the U.S. Organic Industry” finds that this rapid growth has produced a “supply squeeze” that has constrained the growth for individual producers and for the organic market overall.
Still, organic crop acreage accounted for less than 1% of total crop acreage in 2008, much lower than the 11% in Switzerland, 9% in Italy and 3% in Mexico. The low level of organic farming in the U.S. has been limited by a lack of research and extension support, competition from products labeled “locally grown,” and a weak economy in recent years.
Organic farmers are generally smaller scale (averaging 280 acres compared to the U.S. average of 418 acres) and organic farmers are younger and more likely to be women (22% female compared to 14% for all operators). The largest proportion of organic producers can be found in fruit and vegetable sectors. Organic soybean acreage has remained flat since the early 2000s.
Finally, the ERS notes that some of the most significant benefits in organic production are not reflected in the market. Organic producers use fewer pesticides, organic techniques reduce nutrient pollution and increase carbon sequestration and organic farming practices enhance biodiversity.
The ERS finds that increased public investment in organic production provides “wider access to organic food for consumers and helps farmers capture high-value markets and boost farm income, as well as conserve nonrenewable natural resources and protect U.S. soil and water.”