On April 21, 2021, the USDA invited public comments on the future of the food system: From commodities and food crop production to the supply chains that process crops and transport them. This kind of comprehensive look at critical systems is both timely — with lessons learned from the global pandemic — and crucial to our collective welfare and security as we face a changing climate.
Among the Non-GMO Project’s guiding principles is the belief that everyone deserves access to good food. Food security, climate change and social justice are inextricably linked, and each element inevitably impacts the others.
We are in a moment unlike any other in human history. The interconnected impacts of our choices and the consequences of “business-as-usual” lie in sharp relief. There is a shared sense of purpose and a renewed appetite for change, drawing us toward systemic reforms that benefit producers, workers and consumers alike.
In support of a truly resilient, regenerative food system that supports jobs and wellbeing today and for generations, the Non-GMO Project advocates for:
- A systemic shift toward diversified farming systems
- Development of regional food hubs for production and processing
- Federal support for regional action to address food access and nutrition
- Secure incomes for farmers
- Living wages and equal rights for farmworkers
Industrial agriculture is currently the dominant practice in the United States. While this system has produced high-yield, low-cost commodity crops, a closer look reveals exorbitant hidden and externalized costs, including environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and increased health risk to millions of consumers.
Because of the systems of centralized power that “lock in” industrial agriculture, change will be most effective when economic and social policies are grounded in ecological principles.
Here, we offer our vision for the future.
A systemic shift toward diversified farming systems
While uniformity is the basis of an industrialized system, diversity is the basis of resilient agriculture.
Agriculture occupies more than 900 million acres of land in the United States, the overwhelming majority of which is used for livestock and the production of a few GM commodity crops.
This homogenous and extractive model squanders natural resources, devastating biodiversity above and below ground. Industrial-style crop production degrades soil and hastens erosion. Monoculture planting creates ideal conditions for destructive pests and pathogens because it works against the natural inclination of the landscape towards diversity.
Biodiversity is critical to successful and sustainable agriculture. Pollinating insects and birds are responsible for a third of the food we eat, while crops rely on healthy soil that is home to billions of invertebrates and microorganisms.
Diversified farming systems that integrate livestock and crop production drastically reduce the need for costly synthetic fertilizers while supporting healthy soil. A growing body of evidence indicates diversified farming systems can provide a diverse and healthy diet with sustained yields over time and strong performance under environmental stressors.
Healthy ecosystems provide a range of services that support human health: water and air purification, nutrient cycling, habitat and food for diverse species and billions of soil microorganisms that are the basis for new medicines. Support for these activities is vital: There is more crucial natural infrastructure in a healthy landscape than we could ever hope to construct by artificial means.
The challenges we face in the coming decades require bold action. We must provide economic incentives for farmers to rebuild healthy ecosystems in their operations. Subsidies for commodity crops — many of which are overproduced — should be redirected as incentives for diversification: promoting crop rotation, nutrient-dense fruits, nuts and vegetables, as well as non-GMO and organic foods. Using more acreage for domestic consumption will revitalize rural economies.
Moving from an extractive model of agriculture toward a diverse and regenerative one will improve soil, water and air quality, restoring them as high-quality resources just as valuable as the crops. By adopting a holistic view of our food system and optimizing production practices, we will build a sustainable and resilient system — aiding our work to heal a broken planet.
Regional food hubs
The Covid-19 pandemic illuminated and exacerbated our food system’s pre-existing flaws. Consolidation in food processing has produced brittle supply chains, unable to adapt to disruptions. More disruptions are coming: The form may vary, but disruption has become a recurring variable rather than an outlying event.
During this time, there were also success stories. Small-scale and organic operations pivoted during the pandemic, meeting the needs of farmers and their local communities. What worked provides a blueprint for a truly resilient and nimble food system.
We must create a strong network of regional, mid-size processing, storage and transportation infrastructure to protect the supply chain, enhance agility and create markets for small and mid-sized producers. Designed strategically, smaller processing plants also offer safer work environments — an important consideration given the increased frequency of emerging zoonotic diseases.
By intentionally building a diverse and regionally-based production and processing system, we bolster the supply chain against future disruptions and create market opportunities for smaller operators.
Everyone deserves access to nutritious food
The elements of a nutritious diet are well-known: regular, moderate meals with an emphasis on plant-based foods. But our agricultural landscape doesn’t reflect our goals. It reflects the reality of unbalanced, unsustainable and unhealthy food choices, prioritizing high-yield crops with lower nutrient density.
For example, of more than 900 million acres of agricultural land*:
- 70% is used for livestock production.
- 24% is used for just three crops — corn, soy and wheat. Most of the corn is used to feed livestock.
- <2% is used for “specialty crops” such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds and nuts — the foods that make up the basis of a healthy diet.
If every American voluntarily switched to a healthy, flexitarian diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, there would not be enough produce to feed them.
We eat what we grow, and we are as sick as our landscape.
Food issues emerge in different forms: Food insecurity stems from poor access, often due to poverty or the absence of grocery stores. Nutritional insecurity, on the other hand, when we rely on low-quality foods. A poor-quality diet may meet our caloric needs, but fresh foods and essential nutrients are lacking. Diet-related diseases are the number one cause of mortality in the States.
Food insecurity increased dramatically during the pandemic — particularly in families with young children and in Black and Hispanic households. We’ve seen government programs and private entities scramble to provide meals to those in need. If we transition acreage to diversified farming systems and strengthen regional food networks, federal and state initiatives such as SNAP, WIC and school meal programs could create markets for locally-produced, nutritious food. By building these intersecting systems across the supply chain, we can move beyond food security and toward true nutritional security, crop diversification and secure markets for nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables and nuts — a triple win.
The solutions to food and nutrition insecurity are often regionally specific. These are unique situations determined by population density, social dynamics, geography or myriad other factors. A “one-size-fits-all” approach to food and nutritional security simply doesn’t work.
However, fantastic organizations across the country are already deeply engaged with the communities they serve. We must increase support and funding for regional food hubs that prioritize local and nutritious food, food sovereignty, and food justice, elevating this expertise to benefit the communities that need it the most.
Workers’ rights: Seed saving, secure incomes and support for BIPOC farmers
Through land theft, dispossession and exploitative working conditions, the modern food system has been devastating to the people whose labor sustains it. Black farmers saw an erosion of ownership and food sovereignty over the past century. Millions of essential workers who earn their living doing hourly work in the food sector — from on-farm to processing and service jobs — make some of the lowest wages in the country.
Discriminatory laws fail to provide some of these positions with basic protections and marginalized and BIPOC workers disproportionately bear the impact. The continued denial of rights and protections to an essential sector of the workforce sustains inequalities that have been part of the agricultural system since this country’s founding. We must build something better for the workers who feed us.
Owners and operators on agricultural land are also struggling. For 19 of the past 20 years, the average farmer spent more to produce crops than they earned from their operations. Subsidy programs improved the financial outlook of commodity farmers, but these programs prop up an inherently unsustainable system. By redirecting support to promote diverse farming systems, farmers gain income security, produce more nutrient-dense food and regenerate their land.
Ultimately, converting acreage toward diversified operations reduces mechanization and leads to more hands-on jobs. It is essential to create a labor market that does not rely on exploitation. Through legislation and policy development, we must increase support for groundbreaking nonprofits like the Fair Food Program, a highly successful certification and enforcement program that improves conditions for workers.
Our vision for the future of our food system relies on integrated systems and a bold commitment to social and environmental justice. It is a heavy lift. But the challenges we have faced during the past 18 months are proof of just how quickly systems can change in a crisis. Adaptation saves lives and livelihoods. When the initiating event is not a once-in-a-century pandemic but an existential threat to humanity in the form of climate change or the ongoing nutritional deficiencies and food insecurities that stifle our potential, surely we can act just as decisively.
As the Covid pandemic recedes, we welcome the Biden Administration’s efforts to “Build Back Better.” We respectfully ask for bold action to ensure nutrition security for all and to restore our environment.
USDA, Agricultural Statistics Board, NASS, Prospective Plantings, 2021.
USDA, NASS, 2017 Census of Agriculture, 2019.