Over the past 50 years, global and national food systems have developed into complex processes of interaction with several links in the chain. Taking action to create a more sustainable and equitable food system requires understanding how this chain works and how access and power are inequitably distributed for different groups of people at each link of the chain. For most consumers, their only direct encounter with the food system is at its end: at food retailers, such as grocery stores, food pantries, supermarkets, or cooperative markets. While this is the most publicly-visible aspect of the U.S. food system, it is only the tip of the iceberg. In using raw physical materials like water, soil, and energy along with human and machine physical labor, farms, ranches, fisheries, and other operations produce fruits, vegetables, other produce, livestock, and raw commodities. While these are occasionally sold directly to consumers, more commonly they are sold to manufacturers and first-line handlers that sort, process, and refine these products for easier use and consumption. Once the refined food products are moved to logistics and wholesale operations, they are available for purchase by retailers, high-volume individual and institutional buyers, as well as food and beverage companies and food banks.
Building a sustainable and equitable food system means understanding that this system is largely shaped by economic and political interests that encourage environmental unsustainability and economic inequity. Our food system has been shaped by government policy to produce the largest quantity of food at the lowest consumer price by externalizing other costs of production. It is concentrating land and power into the hands of fewer and richer people, exploiting the labor of vulnerable people, compromising the resilience of agricultural ecosystems, and failing to provide healthy food to large numbers of people. From Earl Butz in the 1970’s to Sonny Perdue last week, the past fifty years of agricultural policy at the USDA have told farmers to “get big or get out.”
This increasingly segmented mode of production has resulted in a widespread geographic, social, and psychological separation of consumers from their food and its production. Increased demand and strain on our food systems has accelerated the creation and production of genetically-modified crops that hinder genetic diversity, require significant energy to grow, and often pollute the soil and water through pesticide use.
During the Global Food Week of Action, we look to highlight the ways in which consumers can contribute to the sustainability, vitality, and equity of our food system. While the U.S. food system is complex and easy solutions are elusive, there are ways in which we can work towards a food system that is environmentally sound and socially just.
- Learn more about the inequitable history of the food system. Land is a foundational resource in the production of food. Systematic dispossession of land from both Native and black populations through bureaucratic theft and immoral force-of-law has promoted racial inequity within the food system, in addition to accelerating the widening of the racial wealth gap. Gender disparities in land ownership for farmers and compensation for food workers highlights the ways in which patriarchal systems intersect with how our food is produced. Learning more about the inequities present within our food system helps us understand the multitude of ways in which food production processes reproduce systems of oppression.
- Learn more about agricultural policy. While individual choices that consumers make can have an impact on a local scale, in order to address structural problems, we will need to address structural causes. Many of those causes can be found in our agricultural policy. For example, the biggest catch-all of agricultural legislation is the Farm Bill, renewed approximately every five years and most recently passed in 2018. The Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization is another bill that can have an impact, for example, on the quality of food provided to kids through schools, and the accessibility of institutional markets to smaller local growers. There are many opportunities throughout the process of policy-making to get involved – keep an eye out for our post on Friday about how to visit your legislator!
- Eating food from nearby farmers builds food sovereignty and decreases energy consumption. Vibrant local economies involve more than just money and jobs – a community full of independent, locally owned farms and food businesses also has more food sovereignty – a greater ability to make its own decisions about the way it wants to grow, process and consume food. Food issues in the community can be a conversation among local business owners and residents, rather than decisions made by a corporation that is not accountable to the local community. Also, because of production and transportation costs, the modern American food system on average requires more than 10 units of energy input for every 1 unit of food energy it produces. Consuming locally-grown produce and locally-raised poultry and livestock reduces energy consumption by shortening the distance that food travels, the amount of time that it must be stored, refrigerated, and handled. Learn more in tomorrow’s blog post “Find a Farmer Near You.”
- Eating organic and non-GMO foods reduces food system reliance on chemicals that can be harmful to farmworkers, the environment and consumers. Along with the significant energy used to create them and their negative effects on the environment, the use of chemicals in the food production cycle harms the health of food system workers and consumers, often affecting marginalized communities the most. Pesticides endanger the lives of farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented and migrant Latinx workers. Black farmers in the Mississippi endured “one of the most pesticide-intensive sectors of U.S. agriculture during the mid-20th century”. Poor children are at the highest risk of pesticide-related illness out of any group. Eating organic and non-GMO foods is a helpful way to lessen the food system’s dependence on harmful chemicals. Accessibility to regionally-appropriate non-GMO seeds is essential for organic farmers. Learn more about RAFI-USA’s work to promote organic seeds.