Environmental, consumer, vegetarian, organic, and other groups who are opposed to modern, science-based agriculture are fond of saying our food system is broken. Their definition of broken is based on the fact that the majority of the food produced and consumed in the world is not done the way they want it. For example, Director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food & Environment Program Ricardo Salvador said recently, “Our food system needs to be managed in a holistic way to make sure our national food policies promote affordable, accessible, and healthy foods produced in ways that are environmentally sustainable, fair to workers, and good for farmers.” I agree our food system needs to be fixed, but not in the way these folks are proposing.
What is wrong with our food system is not affordability; we have the most affordable food supply in the world. It’s not that it isn’t healthy; we have a very safe and healthy food supply that is tested and regulated every day. It’s not that our food isn’t produced in an environmentally sustainable way; farmers use less inputs today than ever before and employ more conservation practices. And, it’s not because we don’t produce enough food; while there are hungry people, it is not because we don’t have enough food to feed them.
The problem with our food system is not at the consumer end of the food chain, but at the farmer end of the chain. Today a large percentage of farmers are producing food at a loss. That is, it is costing them more to produce the food than they will receive when they sell it. This is all too common and has been the case in the beef, pork, dairy feed grain, fruit, and vegetable sectors in recent years.
Most farmers understand this and know it is part of the risk they take. There are some food policies, however, that would help provide some stability. Long term funding for crop insurance and conservation programs. Science-based regulations that won’t change each time we get a new head of the EPA. Tax laws that help farmers manage risk and save during the good times in anticipation of hard times to come. Health care policies that provide manageable and affordable coverage for farmers, their families, and employees. Immigration reform that provides farmers with an adequate and legal workforce.
The key to making our food system better and more “holistic” is to start at the beginning of the food chain and not the end. More certainty and less regulation will allow farmers to produce the kind of food consumers want and will pay for in a way that makes them feel good. Those who advocate fixing our food system need to remember on what that system rests: the shoulders of the American farmer.
By Gary Truitt