The Food System of Tomorrow: A Call to Action

We stand at a crossroads. Industrial agriculture has led the global food system in the wrong direction. If we want to build a healthier, greener, kinder, more sustainable future that gets us closer to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we must follow a new path.

Food system changes will need to find a balance between several different priorities, all of which are equally important in securing a sustainable future. The food system of the future must deliver healthy food for all people, healing and protection for the environment, respect and protection for animals, safe and equitable employment for food system workers, and vibrant economies. Most importantly, it must do all this without intensifying the crisis of global climate change. This is no small task!

Coordinated action is needed at many levels, from local food webs, to national policy, to international agreements.

Changes Needed at Global Level

Producing food anywhere requires sufficient water, air, and nutrients for animals and plants to thrive. Industrial agriculture taught us that we didn’t have to rely on nature’s limits. Instead, we could provide nutrients and pest control through chemicals, rather than by working in harmony with natural ecosystems. We’ve now been farming this way for seventy years, maximizing quantity over quality, and hiding the true costs for our health and the planet.

Controlling and replacing natural processes has resulted in a get-out-of-jail-free card for ethically and ecologically disastrous decisions, like cultivating desert-loving tomatoes in humid Florida, and raising as many as 24,000 pigs on a single Iowa hog farm. As long as production is profitable, negative impacts on animals, humans, or the environment have generally been overlooked.

Worldwide, building a food system that can achieve the UN SDGs will require shifting away from conventional industrial agriculture as we know it today—farming that emphasizes efficiency and profit above all else, while relying on synthetic external inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, soil conditioners, and fumigants to control how crops grow. 

Reverse Corporate Concentration and Consolidation

If we truly wish to fight climate change and increase economic wellbeing for farming communities, we must reverse the trend toward rising corporate control and concentration in food supply chains. [1] In place of exploitative agribusiness monopolies that squeeze farming communities around the world, we need a diverse array of community-oriented alternatives. These can include fair trade supply chains, secure land tenure and support for global subsistence food production, and farmer-owned cooperatives producing for regional food webs.

ReducE Industrial Animal Production and Consumption

A sustainable, kind, and equitable future food system capable of achieving the SDGs will require immediate and lasting global reductions in industrial livestock production, especially across the high-income nations where this system is most entrenched. We cannot continue to feed so much of our global food resources to confined animals rather than prioritizing the fight against chronic hunger. Production change must go hand in hand with consumption shifts toward diets that de-emphasize meat and animal products now and in the future. This will help bring food consumption in line with planetary health and make it more inclusive of diverse dietary needs.

Grow Environmental Awareness and Climate Solutions

Global terrestrial agriculture will need to pivot from high-input, low-diversity industrial crop production toward a focus on agroecological methods that maximize soil and ecosystem health. This change will reverse seventy-plus years of industrial agriculture expansion, which has raised the profits of agribusiness while crowding out community wellbeing. Sustainable agriculture must work toward equitable and locally appropriate ways of achieving net-zero agricultural emissions, limiting the conversion of new land to agriculture, and significantly reducing the use of water and synthetic fertilizers. [2]

Make Food Available to All

Rather than maximizing corporate profit, food systems must be reorganized to prioritize food as a human right, and empower producers trapped in exploitative global supply chains. Alternatives to industrial animal agriculture will reduce the overuse of food resources for producing animal-based products. Scale-appropriate solutions must be found to solve persistent problems of food loss, food waste, and unequal food distribution in agricultural supply chains.

Shift Investment from Problems to Solutions

Ecological limits and changing climate now threaten the future productivity of both terrestrial livestock and farmed fish, making them highly risky investments. [3] Current entrenched support for conventional industrial agriculture and livestock must be replaced with investment in regenerative agricultural practices that can deliver systemic food system change, including agroecological transition and alternative plant-based proteins. In the search for solutions, we must avoid being distracted by quick fixes that further entrench the industrial system, such as newer generations of pesticides, ways of increasing productivity of confined animals, or animal feed additives that reduce natural GHG emissions from digestion. We must be careful to consider the ramifications of tradeoffs between health, environment, and animal welfare.

Changes Needed within the US Food System

Changes needed within the US food and agriculture system mirror many of the changes at global level to reduce GHG emissions, improve ecosystem health and animal welfare, and re-balance rural economies. Below, we explore specific strategies for the US related to sustainable consumption change, addressing systemic inequality, and encouraging a new agricultural paradigm.

Reduce Animal Production and Consumption

The US is currently a global leader in production and consumption of industrial animal products. Shifting to kinder, more environmentally friendly foods will require action on many fronts. Legal challenges to the expansion of industrial animal farming are necessary to fight industrial meat’s stranglehold on American farms. Advocacy must also continue to expose the serious pollution concerns, rampant health and safety dangers, and cruel factory conditions of industrial livestock production. Meanwhile, outreach to farmers in the current system can help develop alternatives to exploitative livestock production contracts, and provide support and resources for switching to more sustainable farming.

To change production, we must also change demand. We can grow the market for plant-based foods by investing directly in alternative products, and working with institutional buyers such as large food-service companies, local governments, schools, hospitals, and retirement communities to shift their purchasing. In cafeterias, restaurants, and dining halls throughout the nation, small changes in menu design and deeper changes in commitment can help increase the availability and attractiveness of plant-based options. To change purchasing habits in US households, solutions include increasing the availability and diversity of existing plant-based meats, producing novel proteins by precision fermentation, and making it easier and more convenient to eat nuts, seeds, and legumes.

There is plenty of evidence that reducing the amount of meat on our plates will bring win-wins for health, environment, and animals, [4][5] as well as getting us closer to meeting climate targets. [6][7][8] Research has shown that if we could simply replace US beef production and consumption with beans, this could free up as much as forty-two percent of US cropland for other uses, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 334 million metric tons—roughly seventy-five percent of the total emissions reductions required for the US to remain within global climate targets of limiting warming to two degrees C. [9]

Although fully vegetarian or vegan diets may not be for everyone, US consumer trends show that meat and animal product reduction is catching on: two-thirds of US consumers already claim to be reducing their meat consumption for reasons including cost, health, animal welfare, and the environment. [10]

Dismantle Systemic Racism and Inequality in the US Food System

Building a dignified and sustainable US food system in line with the UN SDGs will require addressing exploitation of American food system workers, alleviating poverty and hunger, and solving unequal food access. A history of deep racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic injustices permeates the US food system, affecting farming demographics, what crops are grown where, and how Americans eat. [11] Confronting and solving these problems will involve a revolution in how food is produced, processed, and consumed.

Just how bad is the problem of racism and inequality in the US food system? Much of our food harvesting depends on the work of undocumented immigrant farmworkers, without whom farming as we know it would be impossible. In the year 2021, many of these workers labor under an absurd double standard: they face the ongoing risk of deportation by law enforcement, while being considered “essential workers” who are expected to continue working outside their homes during the COVID-19 global pandemic. Food processing and meatpacking are similarly reliant on the ongoing exploitation of immigrant workers and workers of color

Throughout global supply chains and the US food system, industrial agriculture stands on a long foundation of racism that worsens many related problems of sustainable development. The same social and economic factors that have propped up the growth of concentrated agribusiness empires in the US have also worsened food access inequality for low-income communities and communities of color. Meanwhile, US agricultural policy and public-facing government institutions have actively discriminated against BIPOC[i] farm ownership, and perpetuated decades of race and class divides across food and health. [12]

Disparities in access to healthy food—a form of systemic injustice that farmer and thought leader Karen Washington has called “food apartheid”—creates radically different realities of nutrition, hunger, and diet-related disease between white and BIPOC communities. To effectively usher in a new era for food and agriculture, we must address these and other systemic injustices and dismantle institutionalized discrimination in the food system.

There are many, many ways to do this. They include, but are not limited to: reforming public policies that maintain established racial power divides in farming communities, funding and elevating food access solutions developed by and for communities of color, building BIPOC community wealth and opportunities for farm ownership, ensuring that our US dietary guidelines do not continue to perpetuate systemic racism, increasing the reach of federal nutrition assistance programs that support under-served communities as well as investing in systemic solutions to income inequality and hunger, and investing in efforts to create anti-racist restorative agricultural community around sustainable farming.  

Redirect US Public Agricultural Subsidies

Current US agricultural subsidy structures increase food waste, promote production of industrial livestock and processed foods, intensify climate change, and reward the corporate concentration that harms rural economies and the environment. Farm subsidy change is likely to be one of the most effective ways to reorganize food systems from the ground up. [13]

Unfortunately, US farm subsidies today overwhelmingly accrue to the largest, wealthiest farms. Research also shows that current subsidies and dietary guidelines promote land degradation and environmental damage. Subsidies have long disproportionately incentivized production of processed food that damages American consumers’ health.

Farm subsidy change is likely to be one of the most effective ways to reorganize food systems from the ground up.

Instead of working to fix the problems of our industrial food system, existing subsidies increase the power of agribusiness. This funnels profits away from rural communities, while locking in industrial agriculture as the dominant mode of production. Since the 1980s, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has tracked increasing corporate consolidation in US food production. Consolidation in the dairy sector has been particularly pronounced: in 1987, half of US dairy cattle lived in herds of less than 80 cows, but by 2017 the median number of cows in a herd had risen to 1,300. The top four US meat companies currently control 85 percent of overall market share in beef, 66 percent of the pork market, 57 percent of the turkey market, and 51 percent of the broiler chicken market. [14] In this space, agribusiness firms take advantage of US livestock and poultry farmers through exploitative contracts and suppression of dissent. The seed industry has seen a wave of mergers and acquisitions that have reduced the field to just a few giant firms, and bound the seed industry to the pesticide industry. Such highly concentrated industries prioritize profit over people, environment, climate, and animals.

To move the food system in the right direction, the US must remove or redirect current subsidies that currently reward large corporate agribusinesses and unsustainable overproduction of industrial grains, milk, meat, and oilseeds. In collaboration with farming communities, we must find solutions for exploitative livestock and poultry contracts, and ensure that limits are placed on the expansion of industrial animal farming. Finally, we must pursue substantive action to reduce the industrial food system’s role in driving climate change, and include specific climate-change mitigation goals in the US Farm Bill.

[i] BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term is not universally embraced, particularly because it can erase the experiences of individual groups by lumping them together. We recognize this serious drawback and use the term only when a statement is truly applicable to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian communities. When an experience or condition is applicable only to a specific group, we use specific rather than general language.

References

[1] Shefali Sharma, Milking the Planet: How Big Dairy Is Heating Up the Planet and Hollowing Rural Communities (Minneapolis, MN: Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, June 2020), www.iatp.org/milking-planet.

[2] Johan Rockström et al., “Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture for Human Prosperity and Global Sustainability,” Ambio 46, no. 1 (February 1, 2017): 4–17, https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-016-0793-6.

[3] FAIRR, “Plant-Based Profits: Investment Risks and Opportunities in Sustainable Food Systems | Report” (FAIRR, February 2018), www.fairr.org/article/plant-based-profits-investment-risks-opportunities-sustainable-food-systems.

[4] Michael A. Clark, Marco Springmann, Jason Hill, and David Tilman, “Multiple Health and Environmental Impacts of Foods,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, no. 46 (October 2019): 23357–62, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1906908116.

[5] Donald Rose et al., “Carbon Footprint of Self-Selected US Diets: Nutritional, Demographic, and Behavioral Correlates,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 109, no. 3 (March 1, 2019): 526–34, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqy327.

[6] Fredrik Hedenus, Stefan Wirsenius, and Daniel J.A. Johansson, “The Importance of Reduced Meat and Dairy Consumption for Meeting Stringent Climate Change Targets,” Climatic Change 124, no. 1 (May 1, 2014): 79–91, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-014-1104-5.

[7] Frank Rijsberman, “The Key Role of the Meat Industry in Transformation to a Low-Carbon, Climate Resilient, Sustainable Economy,” Meat Science 132 (2017): 2–5, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meatsci.2017.04.013

[8] Helen Harwatt et al., “Substituting Beans for Beef as a Contribution toward US Climate Change Targets,” Climatic Change 143, no. 1–2 (July 2017): 261–70, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-017-1969-1.

[9] See endnote 8.

[10] Barbara Benham, “Consumers Cite Health Concerns, Cost as Reasons They Eat Less Meat” (news release), Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, 2018, www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2018/consumers-cite-health-concerns-cost-as-reasons-they-eat-less-meat.html.

[11] Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman, Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).

[12] Deborah N. Archer and Tamara C. Belinfanti, “We Built It and They Did Not Come: Using New Governance Theory in the Fight for Food Justice in Low-Income Communities of Color,” Seattle Journal of Social Justice 15 (2016): 307.

[13] Laura Wellesley et al., Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption (London: Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2015), www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/publications/research/20151124DietClimateChangeWellesleyHapperFroggatt.pdf.

[14] Sharon Treat, “Revisiting Crisis by Design: Corporate Concentration in Agriculture” (Minneapolis, MN: Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, April 2020).