Making Our Farm & Food System Accountable

There is no doubt a wide and abundant array of food is available in this country, but at what price? There is a lot of talk about our industrial system’s ability to make food like Big Macs and Big Gulps as cheap as possible. Nutritious, affordable food for all is critical. The problem is, all that “cheap food” actually comes with significant costs: air and water pollution, de-populated rural communities, damage to public health and economic disparities, just to name a few. Costs that aren’t reflected in an item’s price tag are called “externalities,” and they are accumulating to the point where they threaten our country’s very ability to sustain a viable food and farming system long into the future. In short, we can’t “afford” food that inflicts so many costs upon the public.

Throughout much of our 34-year history, the Land Stewardship Project has worked to expose the externalized costs industrial agriculture imposes upon the public. LSP has worked with farmers and scientists to show that monocultural row-cropping and factory farm livestock production decimate soil and water. We’ve highlighted how federal farm policy such as subsidized crop insurance supports maximum production of commodity crops while reducing diversity on the landscape and consolidating farmland into fewer and fewer hands. Beginning farmers, who are the key to the future of sustainable agriculture in this country, are being priced out by this dominant system.

Our work with farmers and others to identify costs and advance practical and structural solutions are reasons LSP was invited to attend the True Cost of American Food Conference in San Francisco this spring. This gathering focused on discussing the externalized costs of our food system and how they can be addressed through organizing for policy change and pressure from informed public opinion. Convened by leaders from the Sustainable Food Trust and co-sponsored by the Sustainable Food Alliance along with a number of foundations, groups and sustainably oriented food businesses, it was said to be the largest event of its kind, bringing together 550 people and featuring 105 speakers.

LSP helped inform parts of the program, and I moderated a panel on the externalized costs of the current corn-soybean system. I also gave a presentation on LSP’s work with various partners to integrate crop and livestock systems on the land in the Chippewa River watershed and beyond. This conference was significant not only because it focused on the often hidden externalized costs of industrial agriculture, but because it attempted to include many groups and individuals that endure the impacts of those costs.

True Cost Accounting

Externalized costs of our food system already place staggering burdens on the Earth, the public, farmworkers and other workers in the food system, people who eat a lot of food high in empty calories and those who don’t have enough to eat. Conference speakers made it apparent that we face some significant challenges to knowing and addressing the true costs of our food and farming system. In addition to corporate interests profiting excessively from the current system, the Earth’s human population is expanding at an unprecedented rate.

The industry’s response to this population explosion is akin to “grow baby grow,” quipped keynote speaker Jonathon Foley. In other words, proponents argue we need to simply produce our way out of this challenge with higher yields of commodity crops. Such a strategy will result in further escalating externalized costs, threatening the long-term viability of our food and farm system, according to Foley, who is the executive director of the California Academy of Sciences.

When one digs into specific statistics related to the true costs of our current system, it can produce a severe case of indigestion. During his remarks, Tyler Norris, a vice president at Kaiser Permanente, described the diabetes epidemic resulting from lack of physical activity and unhealthy food: “Children born today might well ask of us, ‘What have you been doing?’ ” Every child is born “pre-polluted” with a hundred or more chemicals. The impacts of the industrial food system are worldwide, but for an example of how agrichemicals can threaten communities close to home, see this LSP blog on potato production in Minnesota.

Children and eaters aren’t the only ones paying a “human cost” when it comes to our current food and farm system. Author and sustainable food advocate Anna Lappé moderated a panel of people representing food workers and farmworkers who spoke about the costs to laborers and victories they have attained via organizing. Racial disparities built into the food system—from restaurant workers to eaters—were raised as part of the conference. But frankly, too few people of color attended or were invited as presenters, which the conference organizers acknowledged and pledged to address in the future.

Addressing the true costs of our current food system will take many practical and structural changes. Conference participants heard about various mechanisms for change, including shifting institutional purchasing policies so that they focus more on locally raised food. There were also presentations by food companies that are absorbing some of those “true costs” and by farmers choosing to integrate stewardship into their operations.

Many at the conference talked about growing more food with agroecological approaches and reasonable returns to farmers, organizing for fair working conditions and wages, needed structural changes to policies and economic systems, and making the health of the people paramount in decisions about where to invest resources.

A number of conference speakers acknowledged the beneficial role farming systems that integrate animals onto the land via pastures and diverse cropping systems can play in reducing the externalized costs of agriculture. LSP has long worked on the state and federal level to advance policies that support such systems, and our work in the Chippewa and Root River watersheds is centered around such integration. LSP will continue to play a key role in holding industrialized agriculture accountable for the costs it imposes, while working to develop a food and farm system that produces dividends for the land and people long into the future.

LSP executive director George Boody is at or 612-722-6377.