26 Nov American Agriculture in the Cross-Hairs — Is the Farm Bill Helping or Hindering Food Security, Health and Democracy?
By Dr. Mercola
Food security. Health. Environmental sustainability. Democracy. All of these things are interconnected like spokes around the hub of agriculture. Agriculture, in turn, has undergone massive changes over the past several decades. Many of them were heralded as progress that would save us from hunger and despair.
Yet today, we’re faced with a new set of problems, birthed from the very innovations and interventions that were meant to provide us with safety and prosperity.
The Price of Divorcing Ourselves From Nature
You don’t have to go very far back in history to get to a point where “What should I eat?” was a nonexistent question. Everyone knew what “food” was. They harvested food off trees, bushes and out of the ground, and they ate it, either raw or cooked in some fashion.
Our current confusion about what is healthy and what is not is basically rooted in having divorced ourselves from the actual growing of food. What’s worse, this separation has led to an even greater forgetfulness about our place in the ecosystem, and our role as shepherds of the natural world.
Soil health, for example, is a crucial component of human health that many are clueless about these days. And because people don’t understand this connection, they fail to realize the importance of regenerative agriculture, and the dangers of industrial farming.
For decades, food production has been all about efficiency and lowering cost. Today, we see what this approach has brought us — skyrocketing disease statistics and a faltering ecosystem.
Modern Food System Is Not Set Up for Healthy Eating
The success of the processed food industry has come at a tremendous price. People’s lives are now at stake due to diet-related diseases. Sadly, many have also become incorrectly convinced that eating healthy is a complicated equation requiring loads of nutritional data.
They’re wrong. It’s actually much simpler than you might think. Eating healthy is really about eating REAL food, i.e., food as close to its natural state as possible. Avoiding agricultural toxins like pesticides is also part of the answer. But this is not the kind of food American farmers are currently focused on producing.
This is where the PBS program, “Food Forward,” comes in. It basically asks: What has agricultural progress brought to the table? And: Is the farm bill actually helping or harming our food system?
Cheap Food — A Blessing or a Curse?
Since the launch of the “green revolution” — which, by the way, has turned out to be anything but “green” — food production has gone through a transformation characterized by centralization and monopolization. Fewer and fewer people are growing more and more of the food we eat.
On the one hand, this system has created less expensive food. At the beginning of the film, Secretary of Agriculture, head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Tom Vilsack, notes:
“The American farmer gives us this extraordinary diversity in our grocery stores. We have affordable, accessible food. In fact, it’s so affordable that we have a lot more of our paycheck [left] when we leave the grocery store, as a percentage, than almost anywhere else in the world.”
However, cheap food comes at a steep and mostly hidden price. Not only does cheap food promote poor health, it also takes an enormous toll on the environment. By polluting and destroying soils and water supplies, our chances of obtaining healthy food in the future are sorely diminished.
In short, what looks like progress is really a huge step backward, in terms of creating long-term food security. As noted in the film, cheap food is really more of a curse than a blessing.
A societal discussion needs to take place about how we can move forward without continuing on this destructive path. That discussion is what this program is trying to ignite.
A Short History of American Farming
The Great Depression of the 1930s was tough for most Americans, but farmers were particularly hard hit. Plowing up the Southern Plains to grow crops turned out to be a massive miscalculation that led to enormous suffering, as the area turned into an uninhabitable and unworkable “dust bowl.”
The U.S. farm bill was an outgrowth of these harsh times. On the one hand, farmers were overproducing certain crops, such as corn. On the other hand, people were starving. The farm bill promised to help farmers by buying up surplus food, and alleviate hunger by giving it to those less fortunate.
After World War II, the tools of war were repurposed as tools for farmers. Chemicals were increasingly foisted on farmers as a means to simplify the growing of crops, and for a time, that seemed to work.
But it also became apparent that to further lower the price of food, size was an important factor. “Get big or get out,” eventually became the motto. Over time, the farm bill became less about protecting small farmers, and more about supporting the really big ones.
Again, the small farmers were left to fend for themselves, and that’s where we are today. What began as a beneficent intervention to sustain agriculture and ensure food security has morphed into a scheme where American taxpayers are subsidizing industrial farmers that produce low-quality food that promote ill health.
The Rise of Monoculture
The large-scale industrialization of agriculture also demanded a reduction in diversity, as it’s all about efficiency. Hence we got monoculture; farmers growing all corn, or all soy, for example. Farm animals were also removed.
Instead of farms raising both crops and livestock, the two were separated into different specialties. That change alone has done tremendous harm, as livestock are actually a core component of regenerative agriculture. Without diversity, crop failures become more serious, and so do the environmental ramifications.
The separation of crops and animals into two distinctly different processes has also led to waste becoming a massive source of pollution rather than a valuable part of the ecological cycle. A whole host of land maintenance services that animals serve for free have had to be replaced with chemical and mechanical means.
The primary crops grown on industrial farms today — corn, soy, wheat, canola and sugar beets — are the core ingredients in processed foods known to be harmful to health. What people really need more of is fresh produce.
During World War II, many foods, including butter, eggs, coffee, meat and sugar, were rationed by the government. There were also labor and transportation shortages that made it difficult for enough fresh produce to be brought to the market. For this reason, the government called on Americans to plant “victory gardens” to supply their own fruits and vegetables.
Close to 20 million Americans planted produce in every nook and cranny they could find, from rooftops and empty lots to their own backyards. An estimated 40 percent of the produce grown in the U.S. came from these victory gardens. Neighbors also began to work together, planting varying crops and forming food cooperatives to share their harvests with one another.
Private Gardens Foster Security and Freedom
Unfortunately, when the war ended so too did many Americans’ gardening efforts. Today, Americans largely tend to their lawns instead. But unlike a vegetable garden, which gives back in the form of fresh produce and a symbiotic relationship with soil, insects and wildlife, a lawn gives you nothing but brief esthetic pleasure in exchange for loads of hard work and water.
It’s been estimated that repurposing a mere 10 percent of the 35 million acres of lawn1 in the U.S. into food-producing gardens could supply about one-third of America’s fresh produce.
Moreover, Thomas Jefferson — one of our Founding Fathers, and a farmer himself — believed self-sufficiency was an important part of democracy. He recognized that being dependent on food producers could prevent people from voicing their true opinions and beliefs. Today, as our food system is dependent on a mere handful of gigantic multinational seed and pesticide corporations, the reality of the power that control of food wields has become clearly recognizable.
Hunger and Food Deserts in 1 of the World’s Richest Countries
Hunger is still a major problem in the U.S. According to the featured program, 1 in 6 Americans is eligible for food stamps. Many inner city areas are also void of healthy food sources — people are literally buying their food at gas stations and the like, as there are no grocery stores in the neighborhood.
Investing in regional and local food systems is imperative if we are to change this situation, and while progress has been slow, positive changes are afoot. For example, in New York City, the non-profit organization Harvest Home develops farmers markets in low income neighborhoods. At present, they operate 19 farmers markets in 4 of the 5 city boroughs, serving about 250,000 customers each year.
Most of the neighborhoods served have a high incidence of diet-related conditions like obesity and diabetes, and the customer base is lower income people who normally cannot find fresh produce in their local grocery or convenience stores. The market is also set up to accept food stamps, as a majority of customers are on assistance programs.
Fresh food incentive programs have also been added to SNAP (food stamps). At New York City farmers markets, SNAP customers get an additional $2 coupon for every $5 they spend at the market. This incentivizes people to use their food stamps at the market to buy fresh foods.
“Food Forward” also discusses Michigan’s “double up food bucks” program, which incentivizes people to use their food stamps on fresh produce. The program works with independent farmers, farmers markets and grocery stores. If you buy $10 worth of produce, you get another $10 coupon to use toward locally produced fruits and vegetables, essentially cutting your cost of fresh produce in half.
Subsidize Health, Not Commodities
For decades, the U.S. government has subsidized crops like corn, sugar, soybeans and cottonseed. From these crops you get corn syrup and trans fats — two major ingredients in processed foods — and feed for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
Why not subsidize foods that are actually good for us? After all, it’s our tax dollars being spent on these subsidies. According to research2 presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology meeting in Phoenix at the beginning of March:
- Reducing the price of fruits and vegetables by 30 percent could save nearly 200,000 lives over 15 years, by lowering rates of heart disease and stroke.
- A 10 percent reduction in price of fruits and veggies could prevent 515,000 heart-related deaths and 675,000 heart attacks and strokes by 2035. That includes the assumption that people would be able to afford one additional serving of fruits or vegetables per week.
- If people added one additional serving of fruits and vegetables a day, up to 3.5 million deaths from heart disease could be prevented in just two years.
The researchers believe simply lowering the price on healthier foods would be more effective than campaigns encouraging higher consumption. As noted by lead researcher Dr. Thomas Gaziano at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School:3
“This shows that just changing your diet by eating one more piece of fruit or one more serving of vegetables a week can reduce your risk of heart problems by a significant amount. On a population level, policy makers need to realize that it’s hard to get people to make changes in their diet. But certain policy changes, whether it’s taxes on unhealthy foods or subsidies for healthy ones, can make those choices easier for people and are worth looking into.”
You Are What You Eat
Aside from the environmental harm being done by CAFOs and chemical-dependent agriculture, the current food production system also takes an incredible toll on human health. Many kids are not getting the nutrients they need in order to thrive, especially in the U.S. where nearly 40 percent of children’s diets come from added sugars and unhealthy fats.4 Only 21 percent of youth ages 6 to 19 eat the recommended five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
Your best bet for finding healthy food is to grow your own. If that is not possible, your next best bet is to connect with a local farmer that grows food and raises animals according to organic standards.
Remember, even if you’re not a farmer, you can still have an impact by implementing regenerative aspects such as no-till, plant diversity, and using ground cover like wood chips into your home garden. Along with that, plant some pollinator species to provide a habitat for pollinators. Monarch butterflies, for example, need milkweed to feed and reproduce. When purchasing bee-friendly plants, make sure they have not been pretreated with pesticides that are toxic to bees.
Most importantly, as a consumer, use your dollars to drive change, and educate others as to the importance of nutrient-dense, toxin-free food. Every single time you spend money you make an impact, whether you’re buying organic heirloom seeds for your garden, organic grass-fed food for your family, organic cotton clothes or any other organic items, furnishings and building materials.
It all adds up, and together we can drive larger industries that have such an enormous impact on our environment and health toward more sustainable, regenerative practices. If you live in the U.S., the following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods:
The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund5 also provides a state-by-state review of raw milk laws.6 California residents can also find raw milk retailers using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com.
Source: Dr. Mercola Blog