America’s system of delivering food to retail customers is a marvel. Without a cadre of governmental central planners dictating production levels, schedules of deliveries, or prices, our population has easy access to needed safe, convenient, and affordable nourishment. Every day.
The economic freedom and flexibility that allows for this beneficial result must be guarded if it is not to be lost. Threats to this freedom and flexibility of business operations as enjoyed by tree fruit growers and shippers may come from any level of government—or even other sectors of the supply chain.
Growers and shippers are subject to untold numbers of special laws and regulations regarding their operations: the age a youth must be before being employed for apple harvest; the allowable time for reentry for a worker to an orchard after a spray application; the quality necessary for a cherry to be packed to a certain grade; the amount of water that may be taken from a stream for irrigation purposes.
These federal or state rules can be reasonable or foolish; based on science or whim; expensive to comply with or not—but they are the law formed as a result of a public and open process. Such restrictions to freedom and flexibility are understood and complied with, if not always applauded.
A more pernicious threat to economic freedom is a new generation of requirements imposed on suppliers as mandatory terms of purchase by some retail food chains. America and much of the developed world are dominated by a diminishing number of these ever larger corporate entities.
The buying power of such food firms is enormous. And this fact has not been lost on public advocates of many and varied stripes from environmentalists interested in eliminating agricultural chemicals or desiring a reduced use of carbon; to those concerned with food safety or human rights; to local-production area protectionists.
In Germany, a number of food retailers now cater to local green advocates by demanding that fresh produce items have agricultural chemical residues below levels otherwise allowed by the European Union.
Many urban advocates of sustainable agriculture seek corporate assistance (i.e., food retailers) to indirectly mandate their own version of this ubiquitous and slippery term. To fruit industry people, “sustainability” often means doing the job right with the fewest inputs possible while treating their workers with respect, all toward the goal of keeping the family orchard in business for generations ahead. For many advocacy groups, the aim of “sustainability” focuses on people, planet, and profit, with the latter being a decided afterthought. For example, they desire enforced third-party auditing of farmers to ensure the existence of written contracts of labor, and they want unionization of agricultural workers to be encouraged, if not mandated. They abhor corporate farming and respect nothing but local, small-scale agriculture. They believe chemicals used to fight pest and disease are bad. Advances in production science, such as afforded by biotechnology, are viewed with suspicion if not hostility.
Those groups with an aggressive agenda to change U.S. agriculture are assisted by a new generation of media writers, located in the food pages and editorial departments of national papers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. In the not so distant past, a food editor might aspire to teach a paper’s readership how to bake the best apple pie. Now, one is more apt to find agitprop from that food editor on how the farmer should grow, pack and ship an apple—given all the myriad complexities of various planetary concerns.
In terms of food safety, grocery store chains have drilled ever deeper into areas that used to be the responsibility of farmers. Not satisfied with existing federal and state oversight, not to mention the self-interest of the producer himself, a plethora of private food-safety schemes has emerged over the past decade. With powerful retail chains demanding compliance with separate schemes, multiple audits are routinely inflicted upon growers and shippers. These cost money and time and require continual attention in terms of compliance and paperwork. And with a low-risk commodity, such as tree fruit, these frequent and intrusive audits have given rise to very little evidence of actual harm prevented. Where is the sustainability in this?
Retailers should consider very carefully the role they play in a democratic society. They have great power in the delivering of food to the public. This power should not be abused by making demands on agricultural suppliers beyond routine contractual terms, such as for price, quality, delivery, and compliance with existing laws. It must be remembered that contractual terms offered by giant retail chains are not freely negotiable in any real sense, when you compare the economic power of the parties to the normal transaction of sale: family farm enterprise vs. Fortune 500 Company.
Broad social and environmental objectives, and attendant requirements, should be left to the open political processes of our federal and state governments. Or, to the ultimate customer in a free market.
Christian Schlect is president of the Northwest Horticultural Council based in Yakima, Washington.