MLive uncritically looks at GRCC farmer certification program

This article was originally posted on GRIID.

Last week,  MLive posted a story by reporter Brian McVicar, which promoted a new program by the Grand Rapids Community College that seeks to assist local farmer obtain certification and allow them to sell to larger food distributors.

The article states that GRCC is offeringGood Agricultural Practice (GAP)certification classes to area farmers who want to expand their sales beyond farmers markets. Nowhere in the story does the reporter question the premise of the project, which seems to be shifting food sales from farmers markets to involve food marketers and food brokers. The article does not include voices that would suggest that farmers markets are the best mechanisms for promoting local food.

The only sources cited in the article are the director of work force training at GRCC and someone with the MSU extension, which is one of the partners in this project.

However, the article omits the other partners in this project, which according to GRCC are Sysco, Walsma Lyons and Morse Marketing Connections. The MLive story does mention Sysco, but not as a partner.

Understanding who the partners are in this project makes all the difference in the world. Sysco, Walsma Lyons and Morse Marketing Connections do not grow food, they only distribute and market food products. These entities also have a long history of being food brokers and marketers with an emphasis that is not on the local. For instance, Walsma Lyons states they offer access “to a large global network of preferred suppliers.”

Morse Marketing Connections, “originally worked with Michigan-based agricultural groups and has expanded nationally, now working in multi-sector partnerships across a variety of food-related initiatives, with government agencies, private and public universities and corporations.” Sysco, while it has a Grand Rapids office, is one of the largest food distributors in the US.

What the MLive reporter failed to acknowledge or investigate is that when companies like Sysco get involved in purchasing from local growing’s, particularly small farmers is that they then exert tremendous influence in what those farmers grow. The reason being is that Sysco and other food brokers operate on volume, which means they not only are likely to determine food prices, they sometime can determine what farmers grow, based on “the market.” If a small blueberry farmer begins to sell their product to companies like Sysco they are submitting themselves to an unstable market that is often determined by what Sysco other food distributors can market around the country or around the global. This means that when a crop disaster happens anywhere else in the world it can impact the sales of food grown locally that are now in the global market because of their relationship to companies like Sysco.

This topic was explored briefly in the film Food Inc., but is better explained in Raj Patel’s book Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World’s Food System.

If the local news media is going to report on local programs that are supposed to “assist” area farmers, then they need to ask important questions about the commercial partners in this project and what it really means for farmers and the public.