Aspects of Our Food System That Keep Me up at Night
This piece comes from a recent application to attend the University of Vermont’s Leadership for Sustainable Food Systems Professional Certificate. I enjoyed the prompt, as it helped to reflect on the issues I am most passionate about in our food system and how I can best contribute to the cause.
What Aspects of Our Food System Keep Me up at Night?
The resulting environmental degradation from industrialized agriculture is the first thing that shakes me up about our food system. State and national policies and intensive agricultural practices incentivize farmers to maximize production of one or two crops over hundreds of acres. Many of the same policies and practices also incentivize maximizing production of animal agriculture at scales that make it impossible to sustainably manage the animals’ manure or provide decent living conditions for the animals. The large production of livestock animals also contributes to methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas contributing to the climate change. Intensive crop production degrades our soils and poor water quality results from manure and chemical runoff. In addition, the linkages between climate change and agriculture – how industrialized agriculture contributes to climate change and how climate change threatens the sustainability of food production just add to my passion for policy reform to better protect our environment.
In addition, the insufficient governmental support for the small-scale farmers who work very hard to grow fresh, healthy food using environmentally sound practices is frustrating to say the least. The U.S. Farm Bill provides enormous support for commodity crops that largely go into processed food, livestock feed, and ethanol. At the same time, the Farm Bill provides incomparable support for “specialty crops,” organic food, local food, farmers markets, season extension resources, and other alternative ways to produce and sell healthy, sustainable food. Without proper support for farmers who grow healthy, fresh food, farmers can feel pressured to switch to commodity crop production or to leave the agriculture industry completely. For the small-scale farmers who stick with it and continue to grow healthy, sustainable fruits and vegetables or produce pasture-raised meat and dairy products, many struggle to make a living wage. They struggle to make a living wage in part because they do not have the government support that farmers of commodity crops – corn, soy, wheat, rice, cotton, and tobacco – receive. The struggle to make a living wage is also in part because of scale. Small-scale sustainable farmers do not produce crops or animals at the scale of large commercial farms, which can afford to sell their products at a lower price if they can make it up with the volume of products they sell. Without government support, the small scale and/or organic farmer needs to sell their products at a higher price than their conventional counterparts, which is reflected in the price tags seen at most stores.
For example, an organic pepper which requires less chemical and fossil fuel inputs is more expensive than a conventional, likely chemical-laden pepper. In addition, despite the lower transportation costs, a pepper grown 50 miles from my house is often more expensive than a pepper produced in Chile because of international agricultural policy. Our hardworking, small-scale sustainable farmers need to be paid better and need better access to government resources. In addition, sustainably produced farm products should be made more affordable than conventional industrial agriculture products.
Related, the issues of high prices for and lack of equal access to healthy, sustainable food keep me up at night because of their contribution to poor health and nutrition, particularly for low income and disadvantaged communities. The social injustices associated with our food system tug at my heart. Low income communities and communities of color are disproportionately exposed to environmental harms while also often having limited access to resources necessary for a high quality of life, such as healthy food stores. This is particularly true in urban environments, like my hometown, St. Louis, Missouri.
The injustices of our food system – for the sustainable farmer and the disadvantaged consumer – are in part the result of policies that also contribute to environmental degradation. I strive to be part of a growing revolution to reform these policies that threaten the environmental quality of our world, that make sustainable, healthy food out of reach for many families, and that provide limited support to farmers who produce sustainable healthy food.
In What Role do I See Myself in the Necessary Revolution for a Sustainable Food System?
As the Food and Farm Coordinator of a statewide environmental advocacy nonprofit and as a licensed attorney, my role in this movement is an advocate for the environment, for the environmentally responsible farmers, and for the communities needing better access to healthy sustainable food.
I am the coordinator of the newly formalized St. Louis Food Policy Coalition, a group of diverse stakeholders seeking to advance policies that increase production, access, and consumption of healthy, sustainable, equitable, local food in the St. Louis region. In this coordinating role, I believe I can foster policy change at the state and local level.
I also view my role in the revolution as an educator because I educate and empower individuals and groups across the state of Missouri through presentations about the impacts of our current food system and the ways to get involved in food system change. In this role, I foster increased awareness and support of the sustainable food movement.
Lastly, I see my role in the sustainable food system revolution as a potential ally for elected officials. I continue to stay up to date on food and farm policies, research model policies at the state and local level, and make policy recommendations, including drafting legislation to be sponsored. For example, I oversaw a team of students in researching and drafting local ordinance language to expand the number and types of livestock animals allowed in the City of St. Louis. The language is in the hands of an alderman who plans to introduce the language in the coming months. Moreover, the policy workgroup of the St. Louis Food Policy Coalition had planned to draft language at the state level to incentivize institutional purchasing of local food for this upcoming legislative session. Fortunately, we recently discovered that not one, but three bills have been filed that all align with our goals for a state law. My colleague was in our state Capitol Jefferson City earlier this week and testified in support of the bills. I will continue to monitor these bills throughout the legislative session and work with members of the public and the St. Louis Food Policy Coalition to alert state elected officials of our support for the bills.
Therefore, I believe my role in this necessary revolution for a sustainable food system is multi-faceted. Every day, I strive to foster the revolution through community education and empowerment, coalition building, policy research and recommendations. I hope that I will be given the opportunity to obtain the University of Vermont’s Leadership for Sustainable Food Systems Professional Certificate to expand my skills, knowledge, and effectiveness necessary for a sustainable food system revolution.