On the surface, the US farm system may seem like a resounding success. Farm income, yields and food availability have all increased tremendously since the inception of the Farm Bill in 1933, in line with its original intent.
But a closer look at our food system reveals many challenges. Its foundation relies on resource-intensive commodity crop production, which needs the majority of fertile lands to feed animals kept in confined spaces. It is heavily dependent on government subsidies, with large-scale farms scooping up more than 90 percent of subsidies, despite making up only three percent of the farms in the country. Our food system depends on cheap labor that consists predominantly of migrant workers, of which half are estimated to be undocumented. The societal cost, meaning the hidden costs associated with poor labor conditions such as child labor or unlivable wages, of our food supply chains is estimated at around $100 billion.
More than 70 percent of North America’s biodiversity-rich prairies have been replaced with wheat, soy, corn, alfalfa and canola, primarily used as livestock feed and biofuel. These crops are also the largest consumer of increasingly scarce river water in the Western United States. Agricultural run-off, including soil erosion, nutrient loss from fertilizers and animal manure, bacteria from animal manure and pesticides are the largest stressors to water quality of America’s streams and rivers. It’s estimated that the unaccounted cost of the food system on the environment and biodiversity is nearly $900 billion per year.
The efforts to truly create sustainable food systems do not go far enough. While they may be well intentioned, government grants and corporate projects aimed at “regenerative” and “climate-smart” agriculture are just tweaks to the system, not reforms to the status quo. Right now, the government needs to agree on priorities for the new Farm Bill. The current bill will expire in September, and we need new legislation that can address the real structural and societal issues in our food supply.
We need a radical change in the design of our food system. Following are five steps that can get us there:
Prioritize food for people instead of animals and fuel
One out of three calories in the US is wasted. We need to reduce food loss and waste, and repurpose it to feed people. Whatever food waste is left can then be repurposed to feed animals. Fertile agricultural soils should be used to grow diverse, nutritious crops for humans. Leave livestock and bison to graze marginal soils and native grasslands and upcycle food waste and byproducts into animal feed. This reorientation can produce around 10 to 20 grams of protein per person per day, or almost half of the recommended daily need. The farm animals that remain should be treated with respect and be given the best life possible.
Prioritize ecological efficiency, not economic efficiency
The ecological boundaries of natural resources, including soils, should dictate what’s grown, as well as where and how. Considerations such as organic matter and nutritional needs of the soil, local water availability, weather patterns, climate and local biodiversity should direct a farmer’s decisions around what to plant. We need to choose plants that support soil health and local biodiversity and are adaptable to the changing context of climate change—while also being nutritious for people. This will allow us to reduce our dependence on chemical inputs significantly.
Currently, the Farm Bill works to maximize income from commodity crops and livestock production, with the goal of maximizing economic efficiency. This has led to crop insurance programs and a host of other safety nets, which aim to protect producers from market instability and variations in yields and production. The majority of the financial incentives are for feed and biofuel crops; these programs do not incentivize farmers to prioritize native plants or ecologically beneficial crops or nutritious crops to nourish people, as they can get paid even if crops fail. The Farm Bill needs to take an ecological approach to subsidies and incentives, rather than squeezing economic returns out of a system without considering the long-term impacts.
Foster local and regionally diverse food networks
Give farmers access to markets, processing infrastructure, knowledge and grants, whether they be small, young, ethnically diverse or new. Market structures and business models should support fair income and wages for farmers and workers. Existing farmers need support in the transition to a balanced and ethical food system. The Farm Bill should prioritize these farmers when developing grants and subsidies to both attract and retain a diverse workforce.
Support healthy food for all people
Food needs to be healthy, nutritious and support dietary guidelines. It should prevent disease, not cause it. Food companies and retail need to offer and incentivize the purchase of healthy, sustainably grown foods. More than 70 percent of packaged foods marketed by leading food companies in the US include unhealthy levels of sugars, fats and salts. Government should shift focus from livestock feed and help producers transition to healthier offerings for human consumers. The Farm Bill is an opportunity to incentivize producers to move towards better, more sustainable offerings.
There is also an opportunity to expand SNAP and other food assistance programs within the Farm Bill. Programs within SNAP, like the Thrifty Food Plan, help people eat nutritionally balanced meals on a budget. Ensuring these programs are adequately funded and adjusted appropriately around times of inflation would go a long way to helping millions of Americans eat healthier.
Ensure resources to future-proof food systems
Re-routing the food system requires significant investments. Governments, banks, universities, food companies, NGOs and think tanks need to shift their focus from improving the economic efficiency of the animal-dominated farm system towards improving systems that embrace a nature-positive production of diverse nutritious foods for people. Funding should be allocated to research, grants, and private- and public-sector initiatives that help to rethink our current system. Rather than offering up small tweaks and changes, such as reducing enteric methane emissions from large herds or precision supply of chemical fertilizer to a corn plant, why not allocate that money to regeneratively grow food that nurtures our soils and people?
A Farm Bill fit for the future
We need a sense of urgency from everyone involved to make this happen. It will take funding, which can be reallocated within the Farm Bill to support this shift. Saying it’s too expensive cannot be an argument for inaction if it means we keep producing outside the ecological carrying capacity of our planet and sacrifice the futures of generations to come. Securing a long-term Farm Bill in 2024 that centers around these five steps is our opportunity to reform the system sustainably.
Sandra Vijn leads Kipster’s recent egg farm start in the United States. For more than two decades, she worked to advance corporate sustainability and sustainable food systems at the Global Reporting Initiative, Dubai Chamber of Commerce’s Centre for Responsible Business, Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and WWF.
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Author: Sandra Vijn