Opportunity Knocking
by John Ikerd

A new American food ethic is emerging to challenge the dominant values of low cost, convenience, and attractive appearance. A rapid growth in demand for organic foods, averaging more than 20% per year for more than a decade, is one among several indicators of this new food ethic.

But the new ethic cannot be defined simply as an aversion to agricultural chemicals or genetic engineering. Farmers markets, CSAs, and other means of direct food marketing are experiencing growth rates similar to those for organic foods. The new American food ethic reflects a desire to build relationships with farmers and, through farmers, with the earth.

Some organic consumers are concerned mainly, if not exclusively, with their own physical well-being. But many others buy organic foods because the philosophical roots of organics are in stewardship and community, in caring for the earth and its people. Most consumers who buy food at farmers markets and CSAs seek farmers who share this new and different American food ethic, regardless of whether their products are certified organic.

A growing number of Americans express doubts and outright dissatisfaction with the current American food system. Their dissatisfaction is not with cost, convenience, or appearance. They simply don't trust the corporate food manufacturers and distributors, or the government, to ensure the safety and nutritional value of their food. And they certainly don't trust the corporations or government to promote stewardship of land and/or the well-being of ordinary people.

These Americans search for foods that reflect a different set of ethical values—not just in food itself, but also in how food is produced and who benefits and suffers as a consequence of its production. The sustainable agriculture movement, a small but critical part of the much larger movement creating the new American culture, has emerged in response to growing concerns about the sustainability of our corporate-controlled industrial food system.

In their new book The Cultural Creatives Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson provide compelling evidence that some 50 million Americans lead the way in creating this new American culture. The Hartman Group, a respected research firm, identifies 28% of the United States population as prime markets for sustainably produced foods. Yet today's farmers serve less than 5% of this growing market for foods produced on ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible farms.


John Ikerd is a professor emeritus of Agricultural Economics at the University of Missouri, Columbia. The above is excerpted from the Spring 2005 issue of "Field Notes" published by the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture in PO Box 588, Poteau, OK 74953, www.kerrcenter.com.

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05 October 2005
07 October 2011 last revision