The Great Food Revolution: An Emerging Sustainable Food System

Let’s face it, the current way we do food – from seed to fork, and all the steps in between – is just not sustainable. Not environmentally, not economically, and certainly not healthwise or socially.  Fortunately, we’re now in the early stages of a dramatic transformation to a new food system.  Here’s a quick overview of where we are and where we’re heading.


Deeper layers of the new system include more emphasis on freshness, variety, quality, and seasonality and less on nutritionism (judging food primarily on the basis of its chemical constituents).  We’ll also see a celebration of more place-based foods and more active participation of the consumer as co-producer.

That a change of this magnitude has to happen is now obvious to anyone willing to recognize the full costs of the current system and the groundswell of values favoring anything more natural, fair, and clean.  What’s not so clear is just how the new system will roll out, especially when you consider what it will look like.   

Can you imagine most of our food coming from small local farms, community supported agriculture, farmers markets, and backyard gardens?  Supported by regional seed companies and nearby wind and solar energy?  With local meat lockers, grain mills, and other local processors and providers all part of the mix?  Well, look around.  Those kinds of enterprises are already springing up all over the country. Together they reveal the emerging face of a food system that will be sustainable because it will be more locally self-sufficient and therefore stronger and more resilient than the current system.

Now try to imagine how the Tysons, Cargills, and ADMs will maintain their current roles as mega-middlemen.  What place will General Mills, Monsanto, and Syngenta have in a sustainable local food economy? And what about all those 18-wheelers that will no longer be hauling iceberg lettuce from California to New York?

You might think that with all their resources and smarts, the corporate giants would see what’s happening and would be thinking about how they could participate in the new system.  Yet a recent study by The Keystone Center, an industry organization, shows they have no such plans.  Their concept of sustainability is still based on high-input, intensive agriculture serving a long industrial supply chain.  All 1,500 food miles of it.  Although the report is couched in the usual language of sustainability, its premise is clear: all we need to do is make the current system more “efficient.”  Just home in on factors such as increased yield and modestly reduced soil erosion, irrigation, and energy per unit of production, and no problem, we’ll be sustainable.

All things considered, that’s like trying to make a Hummer sustainable without changing its size, weight, fuel, or engine.  You can make a little progress by rounding off the corners, but not much.

In a way the resistance is not surprising.  The current system is held together by a vast and complex infrastructure designed to transform the locally-centered model of some 60 years ago into the corporate-centered model we have today.  Even if the corporate giants wanted to change, what they want and what we need to be sustainable are so fundamentally different it’s hard to see how they could.

True, some large supermarket chains are stocking organic foods.  Unfortunately, they tend to use “industrial organic” suppliers, which organic purists say are barely more sustainable than conventional.  Some of the same chains are also beginning to favor smaller stores and local suppliers, organic or not.  That could work for a while, but eventually people will realize they don’t need a national middleman to provide local foods.

Other segments of the current system such as transportation and the tractor, implements, and farm-supply industry will find it easier to shift.  But then, they’re not really food chain middlemen.  All John Deere has to do is make more small tractors and less big ones as the shift goes into high gear.

Tom Vilsack, the new Secretary of Agriculture, says he supports local and organic agriculture as well as incentives for management practices that provide clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat.  In addition, he favors practices that help farmers sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, much to his credit.  But he also favors a ”safety net that works for all of agriculture.”  What that probably means is that the USDA, given its deep commitment to the current system, will trail rather than lead the transition to a truly sustainable food system.

Still, let’s give Vilsack the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s serious about trying. Since he’s not an agriculturist by training, his main challenge will be obtaining full and accurate information on which to base policy.  For instance, while it’s true that soil conservation has reduced erosion, much of the overall reduction is due to the Conservation Reserve Program taking highly-erodable soil out of production.  Soil on cultivated land is still being eroded at a considerably faster rate than it’s being replenished, and organic matter in cultivated soil has decreased by 50%.

Similarly, it’s true that biotech crops sprayed with Roundup may initially need less erosion-increasing cultivation.  Yet it’s also true that weeds are quickly developing resistance to Roundup, which has resulted in ever-increasing doses of not only Roundup but other herbicides.  Moreover, the accumulation of glyphosate in the soil from increased use of Roundup is causing the buildup of soil fungi that attack other crops.

In both cases, if new policies were based on the partial rather than the fuller picture, they would not adequately address sustainability.

So if Vilsack wants to be an agent of change, he will have to balance information obtained from proponents of the present system with authoritative independent sources such as the Rodale Institute and the Union of Concerned Scientists.  Fortunately, there are progressive people within the USDA and academia who can help him do that.

Now here’s some good news for Vilsack.  This great food transformation can be driven largely by a simple but powerful principle: basing new policy on real benefits and the full extent of life-cycle costs.

Just as the real, full cost to society of a gallon of gasoline or a pack of cigarettes is about $12, so the real cost of conventional food at the checkout counter is considerably greater than the price charged.  Why? Because of external costs arising from pollution effects on human health and the environment, obesity and poor health due to excess calories and decreased nutrients, energy-intensive industrial inputs, and large government subsidies.

The same kinds of externalities should be factored into the full costs of ethanol from corn, genetically engineered crops, confined animal feeding operations, extremely low rates of testing for mad cow disease, the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and many other practices in conventional agriculture.

Our present system either ignores or actively hides these external costs, which result in billions of dollars in harmful effects that would not be tolerated if the known, full costs had to be paid up front.  In addition, the current system ignores now very well-established evidence that organic sustainable agriculture can provide comparable yields while avoiding external costs.

There are at least three economic strategies for implementing food policy based on full costs and benefits. Which is most appropriate will depend on which segment of the food production, marketing, and distribution system is being addressed.  It will also depend on whether a given action is designed to operate within the present system or to help build up the new one from scratch.

1. Increase taxes on health- or environmentally-destructive food and agriculture practices while proportionately decreasing income tax, in gradual steps of perhaps 10% annually.

To get an idea of why this makes sense, consider the fact that Americans get more calories from high-fructose corn syrup – especially in soft drinks – than any other single source.  The reason: huge government subsidies that artificially lower the true cost of corn and thus high-fructose corn syrup products.  The resulting spike in production and consumption of such products is in turn a major factor in the soaring rate of obesity, currently at about 30% of our population.

That’s why the governor of New York recently proposed that obesity-producing foods should be taxed like cigarettes.  While shocking to some, it merely addresses the sober fact that obesity, like smoking, is now extremely harmful and costly to the entire country.  Not just the obese, but all of us are all paying for it in increased social services, lost productivity and work time, and even higher funeral costs because of the average increase in coffin size.

Just as smoking decreases for every increase in cigarette taxes, so should obesity decrease for every increase in taxes on food with excess calories.  This concept of tax shifts is not an off-the-wall idea.  It’s been endorsed by eight Nobel Prize winners in economics and 2,500 other economists.

2. Introduce a cap and trade system for reducing health- and environmentally-destructive food and agriculture practices.  This strategy worked well for reducing sulfur dioxide, and could be used for reducing CO2 emissions as well as other harmful practices in conventional agriculture.  However, it’s less well understood by the public and more complex to implement than tax shifts.

3. Shift subsidies from health- and environmentally-destructive food and agriculture practices to health- and environmentally-constructive practices.  By way of example, with the same level of subsidies that coal, oil, and nuclear get, wind and solar would already be cheaper sources of energy.  Likewise, if there were a level playing field in food-related subsidies, sustainable organic food would easily be cheaper than conventional.

Nevertheless, any new subsidies should end after five years at a maximum, preferably three.  History shows that it’s all too easy for recipients to become totally dependent on subsidies generation after generation.  That’s why it’s important to make subsidy shifts in gradual but significant steps, both on the way in and on the way out.

All three of these strategies will provide strong incentives to reduce costs and destructive practices while stimulating innovation, transparency and efficiency, a big net increase in jobs, and more benefits to all segments of society.  Especially farmers, who will get a much larger proportion of the retail food dollar.

So how will this all play out?  The most likely scenario is that the new system will spring up mainly outside of the current system, mostly with a new infrastructure and new players doing the business of food in a fundamentally different way.  The two systems will compete for a while, but eventually – not overnight, but sooner than you think – the new system will prevail.  And that will happen not because of a government mandate but because it will be much more sustainable and better in alignment with what people want.  You can count on it.