Yin Meets Yang in Changing our Food System

yin yang (reflected) tree in black and white

Small farmers’ years ago began to rebel against the wasteful and sometimes exploitive practices by the big food companies. Those growers connected with a sliver of the American public that was waking up to the fact that their food-purchasing habits affected the way that farmers treated soil and water, and the way they raised their animals.

Those small farmers and their customers sparked the growth of farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture, and the development of the natural food retailing system. Embedded in much of their marketing relationship was a shared distrust of the large food companies. These small farmers urged their customers to “vote with their forks” to support growers who sought to protect their soil and water resources, and who humanely raised their livestock.

Over the past few years a number of books and movies have amplified this message.

Two recent reports have encouraged me that the big food companies are getting the message.

Last week, a top official of McDonald’s Corporation stood in front of the country’s largest mid-summer gathering of cattle ranchers and told them to expect big changes in the way his company buys their beef. The official was McDonald’s Vice President of Sustainability, and he told the ranchers that his company is organizing a roundtable initiative to define ethical, environmental and economic sustainability in the beef business.

His words must have knocked the cowboy hats off of much of his audience. After all, McDonald’s buys about 2% of the entire world’s beef supply.

A few days later, Nestle Corporation issued a statement that it will begin enforcing tighter animal welfare standards among the producers who supply meat, poultry and dairy products to the corporation. This will impact hundreds of thousands of farms around the world.

The old Chinese proverb notes that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Small farmers and their customers have taken those bold steps.  It is encouraging to see the travel picking up speed as large companies get on board.

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