The United States food system has proven remarkably adaptable over the last 150 years, producing an abundant supply of food, feed, and fiber crops for national and international markets amidst dynamic social change, and despite dramatic natural resource variability across North America.
The story of American agriculture’s rise to world class status is usually told with technology in the hero’s role. In the typical story, the major “revolutions” in the industrialization of American agriculture came about as the result of one or more technological innovations—such as mechanical harvesters, hybrid corn and more feed-efficient livestock, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and genetic engineering. As awareness of the current and potential costs of climate change to agriculture and food systems increase, this singular focus on technological solutions continues through widespread enthusiasm for sustainable intensification.
Public investment: The true hero of the story
Rarely acknowledged is the real, underlying reason for the success of industrial agriculture: the continuous intended and unintended investment of public resources to develop, support, promote, and enable the industrial food system. These resources have taken many forms:
- Financial resources such as direct and indirect payments designed to stabilize production, recover from disasters, and reduce environmental harms
- Public financing of the education, research and development programs and institutions that serve the agricultural-industrial complex
- Unintended human resource subsidies as farm families struggle to balance the demands of full-time farming with full-time off-farm work to maintain family well-being in the face of steadily declining farm profitability
- Unintended natural resource subsidies in the form of degraded soil, water, and air quality, biodiversity, and ecosystem services
- Unintended social resource subsidies in the form of degraded health and well-being of rural communities both at home and abroad
Although the costs of industrial food and the benefits of sustainable food systems are widely recognized, and despite new evidence that the global industrial food system is uniquely vulnerable to climate change and other 21st-century challenges, national and international agricultural policy continues to support public investment in an unsustainable global industrial food system.
Sustainable agriculture is the future of agriculture
Sustainable intensification, the newest chapter in the industrialization of agriculture, is just business as usual for many actors in the global industrial food system. Sustainable intensification rhetoric often promotes the widely discredited myth that low agricultural productivity is the root cause of world hunger and suggests that new resource-efficient technologies that reduce the environmental degradation associated with agriculture are the solution to global food security.
My work to apply resilience theory to questions of agricultural and food system sustainability suggests that sustainable intensification, rather than advancing sustainability and the broader public good, actually keeps us locked into a clearly maladaptive path. Measures to reduce the environmental damages associated with industrial practices are welcome and needed, but agricultural innovations that do not also regenerate the natural, human, and social resources degraded by 150 years of industrialism will do little to enhance the climate resilience of the global food system. In contrast, sustainable agriculture and food systems offer successful models of locally-adapted, climate-resilient alternatives that we can build upon to put humanity on a path to a sustainable and resilient food future.
Local and regional actions, supported by enabling policies at local, regional, national, and international levels, can be used to enhance the sustainability and resilience of existing agriculture and food systems. My research indicates that we can use existing USDA programs, integrative initiatives, and international partnerships to address six significant levers of change:
- Redirect USDA credit and crop insurance investments through programs such as the Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) Direct Operating Loans Program and the Risk Management Agency’s Whole Farm Revenue Protection Program to increase support for farmers and ranchers transitioning to or already using ecosystem-based, diversified production and marketing practices, especially small and mid-sized agricultural businesses supplying local and regional markets with minimally-processed, nutrient dense foods.
- Expand incentives and rewards for producers who use production practices that enhance sustainability and resilience of the U.S. food system through the protection and regeneration of ecosystem services. Programs such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and the FSA’s Conservation Programs could be reoriented to achieve these goals.
- Redirect economic development investments, such as those funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA’s) Community Food Projects Program and the Rural Business Development Grants Program, to promote the re-regionalization of the U.S. food system.
- Redirect agricultural education, research, and extension investments to promote the study, investigation, and development of sustainable and resilient agroecosystems as a core mission of the land-grant university system. This goal can be addressed through the expansion of existing programs such as NIFA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, Higher Education Programs, and the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Program.
- Redirect U.S. international development investments such as those made through the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management, USAID Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Innovation Lab, and Feed the Future to support collaborative, place-based development of sustainable and resilient regional food systems
The global industrial food system faces unprecedented challenges that are projected to increase in intensity in the years ahead. Persistent hunger and poverty, growing human population, a degraded and eroding natural resource base, failing agricultural communities, increasing and shifting consumer demands, and the uncertainties of climate change demand a reexamination of the basic underlying assumptions of industrialism. We must accept that we cannot burn or build our way to global food security, that we cannot depend on human ingenuity alone, but must finally acknowledge the fundamental role that healthy ecosystems play in human well-being. We know enough to begin now to cultivate a new kind of food system, a sustainable food system that has the capacity to produce global food security as it protects us from the inevitable challenges ahead.