Time is Now for Systemic Change in Agriculture

If you saw our previous posting (July 6, below), you know that we give due attention to the growing number of studies decrying our current industrialized agriculture and food system. Yet another study, published in Environmental Science & Policy (Vol. 55, Part 1) has come out, this one receiving special award recognition from an online information provider, Elsevier, that reports on solutions and discoveries in science, health and technology.

The study entitled “Investing in the transition to sustainable agriculture” is based on an analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture funding over recent years. Independent university researchers found there is an urgent need for increased investment in research and development aimed at making sustainable food production more effective. Here’s a synopsis of the report:

An estimated 25-35% of global greenhouse gases are produced from agriculture. Modern agriculture also contributes to the loss of biological diversity, habitat loss, water pollution, degradation of soil quality, and loss of beneficial organisms including pollinators and animals that keep pests under control, but which pose a risk to human health through pesticide exposure and excess nitrogen in drinking water.

Sustainable agriculture, including practices such as organic farming and crop rotation, has the potential to alleviate many environmental problems and health risks associated with the modern industrial agricultural system.

“Quite frankly, we have to make this transition to sustainable agriculture,” said Liz Carlisle of the University of California, Berkeley and corresponding author of the study. “The question is: can we be proactive about it so that our institutions and economy are prepared to make the transition in a more intentional way and can we be sure that all rural communities will have access [to sustainably produced goods]. We don’t want another unjust system like we have now in which some people eat and farm organically and others are stuck with agricultural toxins in their water supply and fast food for dinner.”

External link to the full study here.

Time for Policy Changes

Studies like this provide the impetus for change, but no substantive change can take place without action in the public policy realm – which is to say politics. The Republican and Democratic political parties have become more spectacle than substance, but some substance can be found with a little digging. Each party accepts a platform of policy positions that more or less lay out their intentions for governance. (I say “intentions” because these are not binding. On top of that, the policy statements tend to be fairly general and offer few, if any, specifics.)

I am grateful to staff at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) who has examined the respective convention platforms of the political parties and subsequently provided an analysis of policies related to agriculture and rural America. For viewers who are interested in the details (or what some call the weeds) of policy proposals, here are links to the NSAC analyses of the political party platforms:

The respective positions on agricultural issues in the two major party platforms were sometimes general, other times specific, but overall their approaches imagined a disaggregation of farmers, the public, and the government —  each existing in their own silos, so to speak. Members of the sustainable ag coalition are calling for a greater exchange of communication and, indeed, collaboration in setting farm & food policies:

“To create a sustainable future for American agriculture, we will need farmers, the public, and the government working together –not against or apart from one another – for the common causes of a strong farm economy, healthy lands and ecosystems, and a safe and ample food supply.”

“While we appreciate that party platforms have the unenviable task of trying to address the entire host of issues faced by our next president, we remain disappointed at the lack of attention paid to our nation’s farm and food system, and the family farmers who are its lifeblood.”

On a related note: “Plate of the Union”

A national campaign called “Plate of the Union” is underway to raise awareness of our a broken food system, propped up by a set of agricultural subsidies and other government policies, created and maintained by powerful lobbyists. This system relies on the exploitation of workers, damages the environment, and puts a financial squeeze on farmers. It doesn’t have to be this way. The next president can and should lead with a plan to make sure every American has access to healthy, affordable food that is fair to food workers, good for the environment, and improves farmers’ livelihoods. As candidates hit the campaign trail, we want them to prioritize fixing our food system. Here is the sign-on petition by the Plate of the Union campaign:

Petition to Our Next President: Current food policies prioritize corporate interests at the expense of our health, the environment, and working families. This has led to spikes in obesity and type-2 diabetes, costing taxpayers billions of dollars each year. If you are elected president, I urge you to take bold steps to reform our food system to make sure every American has equal access to healthy, affordable food that is fair to workers, good for the environment, and keeps farmers on the land.