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The Midwest’s Food System is Failing. Here’s Why.

, senior analyst, Food and Environment | July 17, 2018, 10:21 am EDT
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This post is a part of a series on Farm Bill 2018

If you’ve perused the new UCS 50-State Food System Scorecard, you’ve probably noticed a seeming contradiction. As shown on the map below, the heavily agricultural states in the middle of the country aren’t exactly knocking it out of the park when it comes to the overall health and sustainability of their food and farming systems. On the contrary, most of the leading farm states of the Midwest reside in the basement of our overall ranking.

OVERALL STATE FOOD SYSTEM RANKINGS

So what’s that about? A couple of reasons stand out to me.

First, much of what the Midwest grows today isn’t really food (much less healthy food).

It’s funny. But not really.

It’s true. While we often hear that the region’s farmers are feeding America and the world, in fact much of the Midwest’s farm output today is comprised of just two crops: corn and soybeans. There are various reasons for that, including some problematic food and farm polices, but that’s the reality.

Take the state of Indiana, for example. When I arrived there in 1992 for graduate school (go Hoosiers!), I bought the postcard at right. That year, Indiana farmers had planted 6.1 million acres of corn, followed by 4.55 million acres of soybeans. Together, the two crops covered more than two-thirds of the state’s total farm acres that year.

The situation remains much the same today, except that the crops have switched places: this year, Indiana farmers planted 6.2 million acres of soybeans and “just” 5.1 million acres of corn. Nationwide, soybean acreage will top corn in 2018 for the first time in 35 years.

Regardless of whether corn or soy reigns supreme, the fact is that most of it isn’t destined for our plates. Today, much of the corn goes into our gas tanks. The chart below shows how total US corn production tracked the commodity’s use for ethanol from 1986 to 2016:

Reprinted from the US Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, https://www.afdc.energy.gov/data/10339.

The two dominant Midwest crops also feed livestock to produce meat in industrial feedlots, and they become ingredients for heavily processed foods. A 2013 Scientific American essay summarized the problem with corn:

Although U.S. corn is a highly productive crop, with typical yields between 140 and 160 bushels per acre, the resulting delivery of food by the corn system is far lower. Today’s corn crop is mainly used for biofuels (roughly 40 percent of U.S. corn is used for ethanol) and as animal feed (roughly 36 percent of U.S. corn, plus distillers grains left over from ethanol production, is fed to cattle, pigs and chickens). Much of the rest is exported.  Only a tiny fraction of the national corn crop is directly used for food for Americans, much of that for high-fructose corn syrup.

All this is a big part of why, when UCS assessed the extent to which each US state is producing food that can contribute to healthy diets—using measures including percentage of cropland in fruits and vegetables, percentage of cropland in the top three crops (where a higher number means lower diversity), percentage of principal crop acres used for major animal feed and fuel crops, and meat production and large feeding operations per farm acres—we arrived at this map:

RANKINGS BY FOOD PRODUCED

As you can see, the bottom of our scorecard’s “food produced” ranking is dominated by Midwestern states. This includes the nation’s top corn-producing states—Iowa (#50) and Illinois (#48), which together account for about one-third of the entire US crop. It also includes my one-time home, Indiana (#49), where just 0.2 percent of the state’s 14.7 million farm acres was dedicated to vegetables, fruits/nuts, and berries in 2012.

Now let’s switch gears to look at another reason the Midwest performs so poorly overall in our scorecard.

Today’s Midwest agriculture tends to work against nature, not with it.

In addition to the fact that the Midwest currently produces primarily non-food and processed food crops, there’s also a big problem with the way it typically produces those commodities. Again, for a number of reasons—including the shape of federal farm subsidies—the agricultural landscape in states such as Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana is dominated by monoculture (a single crop planted year after year) or a slightly better two-crop rotation (you guessed it, corn and soybeans). These oversimplified farm ecosystems, combined with the common practice of plowing (aka tilling) the soil before each planting, degrade the soil and require large applications of fertilizer, much of which runs off farm fields to pollute lakes and streams. Lack of crop diversity also leads to more insect pests, increasing the need for pesticides. Moreover, as corn is increasingly grown in dry pockets of the Midwest such as Kansas and Nebraska, it requires ever-larger quantities of irrigation water. Finally, the whole system relies heavily on fossil fuels to run tilling, planting, spraying, and harvesting equipment.

No wonder that whether we look at resource reliance (including use of commercial fertilizers and chemical pesticides, irrigation, and fuel use) or, conversely, implementation of more sustainable practices (reduced tillage, cover crops, and organic practices, among others), most Midwest states once again lag.

                RANKINGS BY RESOURCE RELIANCE

 

RANKINGS BY USE OF CONSERVATION PRACTICES

 

 

But Midwestern farmers want to change the map.

To sum up: in general, the Midwest is using up a variety of limited resources and farming in ways that degrade its soil and water, while falling far short of producing the variety of foods we need for healthy diets. Not a great system. But there are hopeful signs that the region may be starting to change course.

For example, in Iowa, more and more farmers are expanding their crop rotations to add oats or other small grains, which research has shown aids in regenerating soils, improving soil health, and delivering clean water, while also increasing productivity and maintaining profits. Diversifying crops in the field can also help to diversify our food supply and improve nutrition.

Back in my alma mater state of Indiana, farmers planted 970,000 acres of cover crops in 2017—making these soil protectors the third-most planted crop in the state. And in a surprising turn of events just last week, Ohio’s Republican governor signed an executive order that will require farmers in eight Northwest Ohio watersheds to take steps to curb runoff that contributes to a recurring problem of toxic algae in Lake Erie that hurts recreation and poisons Toledo’s drinking water.

A recent UCS poll provides additional evidence that farmers across the region are looking for change. Earlier this year, we asked more than 2,800 farmers across the partisan divide in seven states (Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) about federal farm policies that today incentivize the Midwest agricultural status quo. Nearly three-quarters of respondents indicated they are looking for a farm bill that prioritizes soil and water conservation, while 69 percent supported policies (like farm-to-school supports) that help farmers grow more real food for local consumption. More than 70 percent even said they’d be more likely to back a candidate for public office who favors such priorities.

Speaking of the farm bill, things are coming to a head in Congress this summer over that $1 trillion legislative package that affects all aspects of our food system. As the clock ticks toward a September 30 deadline, the shape of the next farm bill is in question, with drastically different proposals passed by the House and the Senate. Critically important programs—including investments that could help farmers in the Midwest and elsewhere produce more healthy food and farm more sustainably—are at risk.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

Leaders from the House and Senate need to come together to hash out their differences and agree on a compromise before the current farm bill expires. As they negotiate behind closed doors this summer, urge them to prioritize proven, science-based policies and programs that will alleviate hunger, improve nutrition, sustain our land, soil, and water, and help farmers prosper. Add your name to our petition to farm bill negotiators today!

 

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  • OK folks, we’re closing this now.

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Claiming that the food system in the midwest is broken is shortsighted and overlooks the great improvements that have been made in the last 20 years. GE crops have assisted greatly. https://www.in.gov/isda/ccsi/pdfs/No-till_Plenty_of_Positives.pdf

  • We’re going to give people one more shot at having a civil discussion of the post contents. We will close the comments down if the personal sniping and off-topic references continue. There are lots of internet venues for that stuff. Please don’t do it here. Thanks!

    • Eric Bjerregaard

      You will never get ted to do that. he is using multiple sock puppet accounts and rarely does anything other than use different wordings of shill gambits.

    • Eric Bjerregaard

      You will never get that from ted miner and all those sock puppets he uses to upvote shill gambits and incorrect comments. As well as down vote intelligent and correct comments.

  • We want to remind our readers that while we welcome robust discussion and differing viewpoints, we do expect comments to remain civil and on-topic and to refrain from personal attacks. We will delete or edit posts that violate our policy. Thanks!

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Your ranking system is screwed up. For starters you are not letting folks know about the ethanol mandates for fuel. Typical hanson crap. Make them grow for ethanol. Then whine when they do. Same foes for feeding livestock. Meat is what sells. Not supplying feeds and growing veggies instead would lead to bankrupt farmers.

    • Kevin

      Bull.

    • kstillerman

      Eric, thanks for reading. Yes, it’s true that farmers are producing what the current system incentivizes. Their decisions about what to grow are driven in large part by government policies–including ethanol mandates but also other policies and subsidies in the federal farm bill (see https://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/solutions/strengthen-healthy-farm-policy/the-farm-bill.html#.W1C1f7gnaUl). The point of our scorecard is to quantify and illustrate how today’s food system isn’t delivering good outcomes for most people. Because it’s not: farm incomes are low, young people aren’t going into farming, dietary health is poor, and the natural resources we depend on are degraded.

      Fortunately, this system isn’t the only one possible. We created it with public policy decisions, and we can change it with different decisions. But in order to do that, we all need to see the whole complex system–with its many failings as well as its many opportunities–as it is.

      If you’d like a fuller understanding of how we arrived at the rankings, I encourage you to read our detailed methodology, which is posted at https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2018/06/ucs-food-system-scorecard-11-june-2018.pdf.

      • S.G.

        Eric claims to be a farmer with lots of time on his hands, it seems and is seen quite regularly and for many years now commenting on similar forums and articles such as this one, defending and peddling industries PR talking points. I believe there’s a conflict of interest here and probably financial ties of some sort.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        And another stupid shill gambit.

      • S.G.

        You just can’t handle the truth

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        This comment is an evidence free shill gambit.

      • SUNNY

        All anyone need to do to see that S.G. is telling the truth is to look at your disqus posting history.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        No, the point of your article and ratings system is to attack modern agriculture. That is hanson’s usual agenda. GE crops are as safe as any. https://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2013/10/massive-review-reveals-consensus-on-gmo-safety.html Also see the Laureates letter, and the 10 years of EFSA sponsored studies.Then consider the excellent safety record of GE crops, The diesel, and labor savings due to no till and the disease resistance of the papayas. Resistance that will soon be used in many more crops. We don’t need your kind of changes. We need you and gov’t out of farming. That includes all subsidies.

      • S.G.

        Eric, why do you continue to spread industry PR propaganda? The EFSA and the Laureates you’ve mentioned, have invested interests and or financial ties. It’s been proven over and over again.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Why do you continue to use shill gambits? That nonsense has never been proven.

      • kstillerman

        Um…hanson? I have no idea who or what you’re talking about.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Sorry, I confused Hanson’s employer. He works for Consumer Reports. None the less, as your organization’s positions are very similar as well as wrong. The links and arguments made regarding your organization still stand. http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/collideascape/2014/08/22/gmos-double-standards-union-concerned-scientists/ and https://www.science20.com/science_20/blog/its_been_a_bad_decade_for_union_of_concerned_scientists-133280

      • Peaceful Warrior

        Blog posts by industry PR assets Keith Kloor and Hank Campbell are more industry astroturf PR placements.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        And another shill gambit from a turtle that won’t use his real name.

      • Peaceful Warrior

        No, Eric, Facts. Not something you are well acquainted with.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Shill gambits with no evidence are proof only of the lack of integrity of the user.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        This one has links to some of the more embarrassingly wrong stuff your organization has claimed. https://www.realclearscience.com/articles/2013/11/21/union_of_concerned_scientists_are_charlatans_108371.html

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        I used to read your news letters. When I started seeing this stuff I quit.

      • Peaceful Warrior

        Why do you keep linking to industry astroturf sites instead of legitimate sites, Eric?

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Why do you keep making claims you have no evidence for? Try refuting the specific claims of the articles, including the embedded links. BTW, shill gambits no matter how they are phrased are a dishonest tactic.

      • Peaceful Warrior

        You have posted all the evidence that smart people need, Eric.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Yes, and smart people just might learn from what I have posted. You will not.

      • Peaceful Warrior

        Sure, Eric, When pigs fly.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Which will happen before you mature enough to quit using shill gambit ad homs.

      • Peaceful Warrior

        Is that all you have, Eric?

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        No, but what I have posted is far more than you will ever read.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Yes, I posted way more than needed to prove that you are wrong as usual.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Yes, actually, I have posted way more than what is needed to prove my points and expose your foolish shill gambits. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095633915300174

      • Peaceful Warrior

        Are you talking about the shameful Laureate political industry PR Stunt letter that over two thirds of the Laureates refused to sign?

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        You can’t prove any refused to sign or even that all were contacted.

      • Peaceful Warrior

        Sure, Eric. You posted propaganda. It didn’t work. Get over it.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        and another shill gambit. You have no evidence that anything I have posted is propaganda, or even contains errors.

      • Damo

        That is a lie. Provide proof that two thirds “refused to sign.”

      • Goldfinger

        It is obvious that they didn’t sign because their signatures are not on the letter.

      • Peaceful Warrior

        You really know how to astroturf. I’ll give you that.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        refute with facts or continue to show your incompetence. Your choice.

      • Peaceful Warrior

        No, Eric. Everyone can see your game here.

  • Kevin

    The soil can be repaired through the use of organic farming. No chemicals, herbicides or pesticides. No GMOs.
    Save the bees. The bees are almost gone.
    Just look in your garden to see for yourself.

    • Eric Bjerregaard

      Completely wrong. Organic inputs are chemicals. Manure can run off and the chemicals in it can leach. Organic uses mechanical weed control. Which leads to compaction and uses more diesel. Organic also uses pesticides and GE crops are better for bees as there is less insecticide being sprayed.

      • Kevin

        As is always the case, you never fail to lie.
        You are paid to write lies, now saying that organic food is produced with non organic pesticides etc. Total lies.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Look up the OMRI site for the list of approved chemicals. I used to grow organically. I know the system. I learned. You should try it. Starting with learning to use stupid shill gambits.

      • Kevin

        Yup.

      • Damo

        LOL. Why do you accuse him of lying? Have proof?

      • S.G.

        Another well known industry PR spokesperson has presented himself.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        And another evidence fre and incorrect shill gambit needs to be removed.

      • Kevin

        Organic helps our native honey bees. Soil health can be restored when you keep the herbicides and pesticides.
        Even a lot of GMO crops kill pollinators through the pesticides they generate.
        I also am currently growing organically. Corn, beans etc are all better than I can buy.
        All chemicals run off but manure can be managed while glyphosate just accumulates and spreads itself into our environment and us.
        Think about it.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Please provide proof that any GE crop can kill bees. Manure is chemicals and is far more likely to run off than glyphosate. Which is adsorbed in the soil. Also glyphosate doesn’t accumulate. It breaks down. http://pmep.cce.cornell.edu/profiles/extoxnet/dienochlor-glyphosate/glyphosate-ext.html

  • c_chandler

    protecting the soil and water are important. food is important. the plans that promote more natural methods are best, and we do need workers to harvest the crops.