When Americans sit down for Thanksgiving dinner this month, just like Canadians did last month, most will not know the farmer who produced their food. This is one of the greatest triumphs of our agrifood system, even if it is under-appreciated.
From 1993-1995, I lived in a remote village in the Mokhotlong district of Lesotho. If I was able to find someone who would sell eggs in the village, I not only knew the individual but I most likely could point to the chicken coop that produced the eggs.
But personally knowing the farmer or the farm location does not contribute to food abundance or food security.
Conversely, residents of developed countries such as the United States and Canada don’t generally know the farmer who produced their food or the location of the farm.
Markets effectively link producers to consumers. From a global and historical perspective, this anonymity is part of the reason you spend a smaller percentage of your income on food than your grandparents.
Combined with international trade and technological innovation, the capacity to exchange with strangers is part of the reason most North Americans live in urban areas and have jobs outside the agricultural sector.
Many of us enjoy growing our own gardens without feeling that our children depend on it. My backyard garden is not the kind of garden my father planted with my grandmother. Too much was at stake then — planting the garden was necessary.
Broad networks of trade between strangers promote food security and food diversity. Droughts in one country (or even in our own) are not likely to lead to widespread hunger here.
Coffee drinkers, for example, should be thankful that we import from many countries — the sudden inability to import coffee from one country is offset by increases in trade from another. Similarly, other countries benefit from our exports. These trade networks diversify our food choices.
So for most North Americans, on most days, eating is a global experience that includes food from our own countries. Canada is the fifth largest exporter of agriculture and agrifood products and the sixth largest importer.
The development of our present agrifood system did not emerge overnight. We benefit from an advanced social technology — rules, standards, government departments, inspection procedures — that enables us to generally feel secure in food produced by strangers and transported across long distances.
This advanced social technology is costly to maintain, so the markets that enable food to be exchanged between strangers are not free. This is even more reason to appreciate the extraordinary networks they allow and the food abundance they secure.
This social technology needs to continue to address food safety and environmental concerns. In addition, it should look to enhance opportunities to exchange food across increasing distances with farmers and consumers who don’t know each other.
In an era that gives a great deal of attention to food labels like “local” and “organic,” we need to also celebrate important attributes of the conventional food system that matter most, to most people, on most days.
The next time you sit down for dinner, raise your glass to the farmers you don’t know and the system that brought food to your table.
Brady Deaton is McCain Family Chair in Food Security and professor in the Department of Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of Guelph.
Distributed by Troy Media