The Road Ahead: Food and Agriculture

America’s agricultural system increasingly produces unhealthy food at significant cost to our environment and our health. These costs are paid by eaters and taxpayers – people like you and me.

Elizabeth Berg

Policy Associate

The Road Ahead: Food and Agriculture

Previous posts in the “Road Ahead” series:

  1. Global Warming
  2. Transportation

The 2016 election has come and gone. President-elect Trump, members of Congress, governors and state legislators are now waking up to the fact that they are running the country and are planning their transition to power.

There is 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.

America’s agricultural system increasingly produces unhealthy food at significant cost to our environment and our health. These costs are paid by eaters and taxpayers – people like you and me.

Our current food system is driven by backwards policy and perverse incentives. Farmers are incentivized to use dangerous practices and overproduce unhealthy food, while farmers who want to use sustainable techniques face major hurdles. For example, large farms that grow corn for animal feed can receive government insurance payouts even after intentionally planting on wetland habitats, yet many organic farms have few insurance options.

In the meat-raising industry, animal feeding operations that pollute our waterways get federal funds to build more storage for their excess manure rather than encouragement to adopt more sustainable waste management practices. As a result, factory farms are rapidly expanding in size; the total number of animals living on the largest farms has grown by more than 20 percent in the last 15 years.

 At the same time, American cropland is becoming more and more homogenous. The majority of all harvested acres in the United States now grow either corn or soybeans – which are primarily used as animal feed or biofuel, or processed to produce high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil – while the fruits and vegetables that should be a large part of our diets can now be found on less than 3 percent of all harvested farmland.

Corn, corn, corn. Photo: United Soybean Board

The increased industrialization and declining variety of our food system is already damaging our health and environment; in addition, these trends pose a threat to the future of agriculture. Monocroppped fields are more vulnerable to pests and herbicide-resistant crops have become standard. These two factors have led farmers to use staggering amounts of pesticides, a practice that has triggered the rise of “superweeds” – pesticide-resistant weeds that have infiltrated more than 60 million acres of U.S. farmland.

Manure, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers eventually end up in our waterways, damaging the aquatic ecosystem and endangering the health of everyone who relies on these water sources for clean drinking water. Although the full extent of the damage is not known yet, Hurricane Matthew flooded more than 140 livestock farms in October 2016, leaking thousands of gallons of manure into North Carolina’s water system. Agricultural runoff carried by the Mississippi River has created a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico – the second-largest human-caused area like this in the world – where the water does not have enough oxygen to support marine life.

Sediment-laden waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo: NASA

On another front, many factory farms routinely feed antibiotics to healthy animals to speed their growth and prevent disease. A total of 70 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are now intended for animal use, and this practice poses rising threats to human health. The overuse of medication on animals that are not sick has led to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can be immune to some of our most important life-saving medications. Last year alone, more than 23,000 people in the United States died from antibiotic-resistant disease.

Today’s farming practices seek to maximize the short-term productivity of agriculture – but that focus is undermining the long-term viability of U.S. farmland. In the agriculturally important High Plains region, stretching from South Dakota to the Texas Panhandle, farms are using groundwater resources many times faster than they can be replenished. At this current rate of aquifer depletion, scientists fear that by 2060, our ability to farm in this region will be severely limited. Soil has also become a limited resource: a single inch of topsoil, the fertile upper layer that contains the most important nutrients that crops need, takes 300 years to produce… but with our current practices, just 30 years to erode. Because intensive farming is leaching nutrients from the soil much more quickly than they can be cycled back into the ground, current research suggests that our land’s ability to support food production may have already peaked.

Beyond being harmful, our current system of industrial agriculture is unnecessary. Proponents of these practices argue that intensive farming is the only way to feed the world – but this narrative is false. On the contrary, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recently declared that sustainable agriculture is the key to addressing global food insecurity. 

There is some good news: many consumers, farmers and corporations recognize the risks of industrial agriculture and have started to act. Sales of organic products have been increasing every year, and more than 80 percent of families occasionally choose to buy organic foods. After public outcry about the routine overuse of antibiotics, large fast food chains like Chipotle, Subway, McDonald’s and Wendy’s have announced that they will stop or limit their use of meat from farms that overuse antibiotics.

Recent research has shown us that planting harvested fields with cover crops and growing complementary crops in alternating years on the same fields leaves the soil healthier and reduces water pollution, while maintaining productivity. Many farms, both new and old, are starting to embrace these more sustainable techniques, and the USDA reports that farms are increasingly marketing themselves as local and sustainable. Food education has become a bigger focus, as the number of school districts taking part in “farm to school” programs has more than quadrupled since 2006.

This consumer support must be channeled toward policy reform. Most discussion of federal food policy is tied to the Farm Bill, which Congress will start revising in 2018. Decision-makers could create legislation to hold polluters accountable for their actions and increase incentives for sustainable farming practices, or they could go the other direction and weaken our already insufficient environmental regulations, as President-elect Trump has advocated.  

Even if federal food policy remains stalled under a Trump administration and Republican Congress, change will continue to proceed at the local level. In 2016, Massachusetts voters passed a ballot initiative limiting farm animal confinement practices. Meanwhile, even as federal policy encourages the consumption of high fructose corn syrup through farm subsidies, localities in California and Colorado voted to tax HFCS-sweetened sodas.

Advocates of sound food policy seek a future in which local citizens and the federal government work together to guarantee the long-term sustainability of food production, protecting the current and future health of humans and their environment. The seeds of that future are being planted today, as consumer activism and local and state policy innovation shift the marketplace toward better practices. Over the next few years, federal policymakers will be prodded to catch up.


Elizabeth Berg

Policy Associate