Better Policies are Needed to Address Food System Instability in the U.S.

Food systems in the U.S. are inherently volatile due to market structural problems. It is a U.S. crisis that needs to be examined, as volatility benefits some groups but harms the most vulnerable. Because free market ideologues are able to live with the current food system crisis, it may be more necessary now than ever to provide local and small farmers with the tools to be self-sustaining.

That was one of the messages that emerged in Boston on April 1 during the Investing in Discovery: 2017 Food Tank Summit.

food system

Government policies can assist small and local farmers to succeed in a “system that is gigantic and complex,” according to Timothy Griffin, Director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment Program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, which hosted the event. Rather than a set of inputs that we can apply to crops and livestock, much new technology is “scale neutral” through open source platforms and has applications to various types of farms, he added.

Monique Mikhail, a senior campaign strategist for Greenpeace agreed, saying, “It is the role of government to support farms for a better food future.” She described the keen interactions among local knowledge, food system policies, and sustainability. “As citizens, we need to put our mouths and our votes in places where they count” to stimulate legislators to protect U.S. farms.

Mikhail described how ecologically-oriented farmers do better financially due to more robust and diversified crops, but data about these topics is not always available to the farmers who need it the most. To find out how data dissemination can work across various kinds of farms and communities, she suggested that, “in our current political administration in the United States,” it makes sense to go local. “You can get a lot done at the local level when it’s difficult to get things done at the national level,” she revealed.

Impacts of climate change in rural communities need to be shared, she argued. Effects of chemical applications, for example, aren’t often readily available at the local level. To help individual farmers get access to important local information, she offered the example of “climate resilient field schools,” where farmers with organic expertise speak out to the general public to show alternatives to chemical practices.

Many at the FoodTank Summit wondered why more farmers aren’t simply diversifying their crop selections so that they grow healthy plants that don’t adversely affect the environment. Griffin said the concept is much easier in the abstract than in actual practice. “We may have multiple reasons of many people eating different kinds of foods,” he began.

He suggested that many well-meaning people don’t have sufficient farming background knowledge to appreciate the nuances involved in how resource intensive switching crops is. “Going from one kind of agriculture to another is really complex,” Griffin said, saying that making such a significant business decision tends to be “a generational task.” He explained that it takes time to build the expertise to diversify crops. While some farmers are able to do it, he said that crop diversification and farm system management could very well be “policy oriented, or part of value sharing arrangements.” He suggested that diversification “screams out for innovation” within a larger picture of data collection about what does and doesn’t work. “It’s not as simple as saying let’s do B instead of A.”

Matthew Dillon, director of Agricultural Policy and Programs at Clif Bar, took a slightly different approach to how farm system policy changes in the U.S. could affect the stability of local and small farms. He pointed to “highly concentrated misinformation efforts [in which] commodity checkoff groups are very large lobbying groups.” He argued that these lobbyists inhibit agricultural change, so that, as much as we all believe in the power of voting, large block lobbying groups are setting a volatile legislative agenda around farm reform that frequently harms the least powerful in society.

Because it’s important to see “how they can connect with different sources,” Dillon’s company funds research into agricultural areas that don’t, on first glance, seem relevant to Clif Bar’s repertoire of crops or products. “The organic sector doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the traditional farmer,” he explained, “so we fund research in quinoa, Greenleaf cotton. We want to fund the research capacity of the private sector,” which he sees as a responsibility for all growers.

Mikhail offered a model that supports small scale farmers to improve their incomes, their resilience to climate change, and their ability to stay viable, while also staying vigilant about corporate food system business models. She argued that large agribusiness should be held accountable for their sustainability practices. “There is pretty patchy data about what they’re putting investment into,” she noted. “We need to look at it for different environmental indicators” as part of larger agribusiness accountability advocacy initiatives.

In an era in which food system policies may be manipulated by a Trump administration that succumbs to increased corporate influence, it is incredibly important to be vigilant when food regulations and protections are the subject of U.S. Congressional inquiry. It is essential for both people and planet. We must hold our leaders accountable so that not just the powerful but the larger population benefit from food system policies in what should ethically be an egalitarian approach for the benefit of all.

Photo credit: Richard Hurd via / CC BY


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