On October, Apples, and a Sustainable Food System

, senior analyst, Food and Environment | October 20, 2016, 3:30 pm EDT
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October is surely the best month of the year. From my closet emerge beloved boots and sweaters. And from my kitchen cabinets, baking dishes and heavy cast iron pans. With cooler temperatures and a bounty of fresh food in season, I want to cook again. And during this magical month, my kitchen plays host both to late-season tomatoes and okra and to fall crops including acorn squash and cauliflower. And, of course, apples—which is fortunate, because in a new video released today, UCS Fellow Mark Bittman is cooking up something simple but delicious with that October-est of fruits.

Perusing the farmers markets here in Washington, DC on a fall weekend, it’s easy to believe that American agriculture is all about producing an abundance of real food I can cook with. But in fact, much of the farmland in this country is more like a factory, taking just a few kinds of seed, adding enormous quantities pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and pumping out raw materials for the packaged food industry, for industrial meat production, and for our gas tanks (corn ethanol). It’s not good for us as eaters, and it’s not sustainable. This is the story Mark and our colleague Ricardo Salvador tell in their new video:

Too much corn, not enough carrots

Mark notes in the video that US farms aren’t producing a lot of real food anymore, and looking at the acreage, he’s absolutely right. In its most recent census of agriculture, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that in 2012, there was a total of 915 million acres of farmland in the United States—that’s just over 40 percent of the entire nation’s land area. Of all that farmland, more than 170 million acres (18.6 percent) was dedicated to just two crops—corn and soybeans—that are mostly used either in unhealthy processed foods or in products that aren’t food at all.

By contrast, vegetables (a USDA category that oddly includes melons) were grown on only 4.5 million acres (0.5 percent of farmland), and that was down 4 percent from 2007. Orchard crops (tree fruits, tree nuts, and grapes) accounted for 5.2 million acres, up 3 percent.

Meanwhile, the USDA says we’re importing much of the healthy food we eat. In 2013, nearly half the fruits and nuts Americans consumed were imported, along with 20 percent of our vegetables. Now obviously, most of the United States doesn’t have the climate to grow bananas and cashews, or tomatoes in the dead of winter. But we could grow more broccoli and carrots in every state. And most of us need to be eating more fruits and vegetables every day, according to federal dietary guidelines.

Our food is polluting our water

But our current agriculture system isn’t just stacked against us as eaters, it’s also degrading our environment. Those millions of acres of corn and soybeans require massive chemical and energy inputs and generate widespread pollution. Fertilizer runoff and erosion in particular generate enormous water pollution problems; cities including Des Moines and Toledo are dealing with contaminated drinking water supplies, and the national price tag for pollution of water resources with agricultural nitrogen has been estimated at $157 billion a year.

Today’s agriculture also contributes increasingly to global warming, accounting for about 9 percent of total US emissions in 2014. In turn, farmers are highly vulnerable to the effects of global warming, including the floods, droughts, and pests that experts expect will become more frequent and more damaging. At the same time, public research to develop and refine holistic solutions to these problems is woefully underfunded.

The next president can fix this problem

Our Plate of the Union campaign is making the case that the problems of our food system (including consequences for our environment but also for workers) are interconnected, and must be solved together. And we’re calling on the next president to do just that.

A coordinated food policy system would help farmers adopt sustainable systems with a variety of benefits. Reimagined farm policies would invest in the research, technical assistance, and incentives farmers need to adopt sustainable farming systems based on the principles of agroecology.

  • Just one such system—planting native perennial prairie strategically in strips on 10 percent of farmland—can reduce nitrogen loss in rivers and streams by 85 percent, phosphorus loss by 90 percent, and sedimentation by 95 percent.
  • UCS analysis demonstrates that if policies encouraged adoption of such a system across the Corn Belt, it could reap more than $850 million in savings for farmers and society at large through reduced nitrogen loss to surface waters.
  • Solutions such as planting perennials and cover crops also sequester carbon, prevent heat-trapping nitrous oxide emissions to air, and build healthy soils that help farmers adapt to climate change.

We’re just a few short weeks out from the presidential election (mercifully), and UCS will continue to press the candidates—and then the president-elect—to take on comprehensive food system reform.

But meanwhile, it’s apple season, and I can’t think of a better way to take our minds off the election than by trying out Mark’s easy skillet apple crisp recipe.  So I suggest finding an orchard (or just a grocery store) near you, getting yourself some Granny Smiths or other good cooking/baking apples, and firing up your stove.

Maybe add an extra pinch of cinnamon. Because, October!

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  • solodoctor

    Thanks for an informative, albeit sobering, review of where and how our food system needs to change.

    One very relevant piece of the pie (excuse the pun) here in Calif is that orchards of some produce, eg almonds, are very water intensive. Given the drought we have been experiencing as well as our burgeoning urban population the continuing development of these orchards is a short sighted grab for profits at the expense of our longer term wellbeing.

    • kstillerman

      Solo Doctor, thanks for reading, and nice pun! Yes, water usage is another important aspect of agricultural sustainability. This is especially true in California, as you note, and may necessitate re-thinking what farmers produce in the state–not just almonds, but dairy, which is even more water-intensive.

      But water can also be a constraint to agriculture elsewhere. Recall the terrible Midwestern drought in 2012. I mentioned above that planting perennials and cover crops on farms can help farmers adapt to climate change, and one way they do that is by building carbon-rich soils that retain moisture better. This means more water available to crops, and less need for irrigation.