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A Midterm Lay of the Land: Food and Agriculture

The 2018 election is now behind us, with a new Congress, new governors and new state legislators about to grapple with America’s biggest challenges.

Every two years, Frontier Group analysts take a step back to review the “lay of the land” on their issue areas. This is the fourth in a series of posts over the next several weeks reviewing the threats and opportunities facing the American people, our communities, and our environment.

A sea of corn or soybeans stretching across the horizon: this is the image of American farming ingrained in our collective imagination. Through advertisements and romantic odes to America’s heartland, we’ve been led to believe that this is a picture of an agricultural system that keeps us fed, healthy and secure. Yet, this image only depicts part of an American food landscape that increasingly threatens our environment, our health and ultimately our ability to feed ourselves.

Agriculture is both one of the largest contributors to climate change and one of the areas of our lives most vulnerable to it. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture was responsible for nine percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. Changing temperatures, rainfall patterns and the frequency of extreme events will all radically change how and where we grow our food. Especially as our population expands, we will need to continue to find ways to meet our need for food while simultaneously reducing its impact on our soil, water and climate.

That will require big changes in the American way of growing food. The trouble begins with our “endless waves of grain.” The industrial production of one crop – a monoculture – is a chemical-intensive process that depletes our soil. If one plant is grown year after year in the same place, the nutrients in the soil are quickly used up, necessitating the use of chemical fertilizers. Chemicals from synthetic fertilizers can linger in the soil for as long as three decades, and some leak out into our water supply. Heartland cities have had to expend millions of dollars scrubbing nitrates from their drinking water, as nitrate-laced water can cause serious health effects, especially for infants and pregnant women. Use of fertilizers is also a major source of nitrous oxide emissions, which contribute to global warming, and when washed down waterways, these fertilizers and the manure from factory farms help form "dead zones" in our lakes and oceans.

American agriculture’s chemical dependence doesn’t end with fertilizer. Monoculture fields can be fertile ground for many weeds and pests, requiring the increased use of pesticides. The overuse of pesticides has been linked to a variety of negative health and environmental outcomes. In humans, exposure during the production and application of pesticides can cause damage to the lungs and nervous system and have been linked in some studies to cancer.

The development of genetically modified crops has, in some cases, increased our use of pesticides. “Roundup Ready” corn for instance was developed to be immune to the widely used herbicide, so that Roundup could be spread indiscriminately across the fields. This practice both further poisons our soil and health, as well as creates weeds that have developed resistance to Roundup. In order to control these new breeds of plants, farmers have had to spray even more herbicides and till their fields more frequently.

The chemical intensity of agriculture extends to the widespread and routine use of antibiotics on animals in factory farms. Due to the high concentration of animals and unsanitary conditions on these farms, meat producers give small amounts of antibiotics to the animals as a preventative measure against disease or sometimes to stimulate growth. This practice of using antibiotics on healthy livestock has enabled dangerous bacteria to develop resistance to our medicine – helping to spawn “superbugs” that do not respond to any known treatment. Some of these bacterial strains start in the farm but end up in human populations. New research suggests that the number of Americans who died in 2010 from antibiotic resistant bacteria could be over 150,000, which would make it the third-highest cause of death in the country.

Pumping our agricultural system with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and antibiotics (along with, in many cases, scarce water resources), has led the nation to produce more than enough crops to feed the country. Yet, our food system is still not able to support a healthy and nourished population. While some Americans go hungry, around 40 percent of our nation’s food is thrown away - enough food to supplement an additional 1,250 daily calories per person.

Additionally, the food that does manage to make it into our bodies often fails to provide adequate nutrition, leaving us instead with an excess of fat, sugar and salt. The obesity rate in both children and adults continues to climb, leading to more Americans with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

Increasingly, Americans have been adopting food habits that reduce their exposure to the dangers of industrial agriculture. The sale of organic food in America is continually growing and the climate impacts of the average American diet are shrinking. Under pressure from their consumers, many restaurant chains have stopped buying meat raised with the routine use of antibiotics.

But changing the direction of our food system will require changes in public policy. Here are a few priorities:

New Farm Bill: The country’s main agricultural legislation, known as the Farm Bill, looks to be updated and passed in the lame duck session of Congress. Held up for months over a disagreement about work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Republicans and Democrats believe they have worked out a compromise and are now finalizing the language of the bill. The policies in the legislation will largely stay the same (including subsidies that incentivize unsustainable farming practices), although the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to set aside land for conservation, will grow by three million acres.

Banning the Routine Use of Antibiotics: Currently, only California and Maryland have passed legislation that limits the use of medically important antibiotics on livestock. However, in the past couple years, many states have introduced similar legislation and Illinois recently held hearings on a bill that would tighten restrictions for antibiotic use in animals.

Reducing Food Waste: As awareness grows about America’s food waste problem, legislation is being considered which aims to redirect good food away from landfills. In 2017, a bill was introduced in the House that aimed to expand liability protection for companies or individuals that donate food. On the state level, there is wide variation in food reuse and recycling laws. Potential reforms that some states have initiated include easing restrictions on food waste given to animals and creating laws that encourage or require the recycling of organic waste.

A better food future is possible. By transitioning to an agriculture system that prioritizes quality over quantity and reforming our own relationship with food, we can feed this country in a way that’s healthy and sustainable.

Photo: Don Graham via flickr CC BY-SA 2.0