A Midterm Lay of the Land: Food Policy

The way we produce and consume food is bad for the environment and bad for us. Deforestation, water contamination, diet-based disease and food safety scares aren’t minor glitches in an otherwise well designed system. Rather, they are inevitable outgrowths of a system dependent on chemical fertilizer, expanding croplands, massive subsidies and weak oversight.

Lindsey Hallock

Policy Analyst

The 2014 election has come and gone. New state legislators, governors and members of Congress are waking up to the fact that they are now in charge of running the country and are planning their transition to power.

There’s no better time to take a step back and take stock of where we are as a country on the issues that will shape our future. Over the coming weeks, Frontier Group analysts will be providing their take on the lay of the land on the issues on which they work in 1,000 words or less.  Earlier, Tony Dutzik provided his take on transportation. Today, Policy Associate Lindsey Hallock addresses food policy.

The way we produce and consume food is bad for the environment and bad for us. Deforestation, water contamination, diet-based disease and food safety scares aren’t minor glitches in an otherwise well designed system. Rather, they are inevitable outgrowths of a system dependent on chemical fertilizer, expanding croplands, massive subsidies and weak oversight.

Overhauling the food system into a source of nourishment, both for humans and the environment, will not come from doubling down on the same destructive policies, but rather from implementing practices that prioritize sustainability and human health.

Agriculture was responsible for at least 10-12 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2010. If one considers the carbon released from deforestation caused by the expansion of cropland, agriculture could account for as much as 29 percent of global GHG emissions. The release of methane from intensive forms of livestock production, used to feed the world’s growing craving for meat, was responsible for 32 percent of these emissions.

Agriculture also threatens the availability of clean water. The industrial practice of planting only one crop in a field sucks the soil dry of nutrients, causing fertilizer usage to skyrocket over time. The Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that, if trends continue, farmers will use around 194 million tons of fertilizer in 2016.[1] This is bad news for water, because fertilizer often finds its way into nearby water sources, causing aquatic dead zones and dangerous algae blooms. Water contamination of this nature is difficult or impossible to clean up. Water ratepayers in Des Moines, Iowa, for example, paid an extra $1 million in 2013 alone to cover the costs of cleaning the water of nitrates.

The way we produce and consume food not only makes the planet sick, but it is also killing us. Cardiovascular disease is now the leading cause of death for Americans and its treatment cost us $273 billion in 2010.[2] Disease and obesity are the outcomes of a system that subsidizes industrially processed food and empty calories while fresh, organic options remain unaffordable for many families. Antibiotic resistance, caused in part by the over-use of antibiotics on factory farms, kills 23,000 people each year in the United States. Even for consumers determined to find healthy and sustainable options, the task is often difficult due to misleading labeling practices, lax regulation of dangerous food additives, and the risks of food-borne illnesses, such as salmonella, that come from weak oversight in food production and processing.

Despite the immense damage caused by our current food practices, we have often been told that there is no alternative. We are told that we have to apply the newest pesticide to control “superweeds”, but not that similar practices led to creation of those superweeds in the first place.[3] We are told that we must accept genetically modified foods and intensify livestock production in order to produce enough food to feed the world – despite the fact that we already produce more than enough calories to meet current population projections for 2050. Others argue that the current system is valuable because it can produce cheap food, without mentioning the vast array of external costs that are not calculated into the price at the counter.

The good news is that putting the spotlight back on the food system has introduced new perspectives and ideas into the public discourse.

In a Washington Post op-ed on Nov. 7, some of the biggest names in food advocacy argued that the United States needs a unified national food policy.[4] They referenced other countries, such as Brazil, that have successfully done so, and gave suggestions for what type of responsibilities a national food policy council might have. In the United States, regional and local food policy councils have already had success in bringing together various stakeholders in the food system and pushing for important food policy changes all over the country.

The to-do list for food policy might include the following items;

Production: Diverting subsidies from industrial feed crops would discourage the agricultural practices that are contributing to climate change. Subsidies for industrial agriculture hide the true costs of a system that relies heavily on fertilizer and pesticides, monocultures and deforestation. By artificially lowering prices, consumers are encouraged to support a food system that actually destroys the ecosystem we depend on. In addition, these foods (sugar, corn and wheat for example) contribute to the epidemics of obesity and heart disease.

 Limiting the use of antibiotics in livestock production would ensure that people have continued access to a precious medical resource. It would also have the added benefit of forcing concentrated animal feeding operations to better their farm conditions, thereby decreasing the chances that dangerous bacteria will find their way into our food.

Sourcing: The country has already made substantial progress in promoting farm-to-school and farm-to-restaurants options, but changing state procurement laws that often force schools to buy food from industrial farms would go a long way in getting healthy and sustainable food into school lunches.

Consumption: Making it easier for consumers to know what is in the food they eat, and ensuring that their food is safe, must be the top priority. Labeling requirements are the best way for consumers to make smart choices at the store, and recent studies have shown that labeling (GMOs for example) has no substantial impact on the price of food.

Our current methods of producing and consuming food are not the only ones possible. If we want healthy food, grown sustainably, those methods will have to change. The fate of the planet, and the fate of our bodies, depends on it.



[1] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Current World Fertilizer Trends and Outlook to 2016, 2012.

[2] Karen Perry Stillerman, Union of Concerned Scientists, “Can Changes in Our Food System Help Make Americans Healthier,” May 2013.

[3] Union of Concerned Scientists, The Rise of Superweeds-and What to Do About It,” December 2013.

[4] Pollen et al., “How a National Food Policy Could Save Millions of Americans’ Lives,” The Washington Post, 7 November 2014.


Lindsey Hallock

Policy Analyst