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Our Failing Food System

Agriculture in the United States has taken the wrong road, and it isn't working.

The wealthiest nation in the world, with the most powerful technology in history at its disposal, is feeding its citizens a diet that evolution has not equipped us for. And we are growing most of this food using methods that poison and undermine our soil, water and air with unsustainable quantities of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

The results? A population—and a healthcare system—threatened by a crisis of diet-related illness; millions of acres of damaged farmland; chemical runoff spilling into our waterways and creating an oxygen-starved "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico.

In short, our food system, for all its vaunted productivity, is failing us.

Unhealthy Food Policy

U.S. food policy is intended to help farmers grow the food we need. But increasingly, its effect is to make foods we don't need—like corn syrup—cheaper.

The current system of agricultural subsidies mostly benefits large-scale growers of commodity crops such as corn and soybeans—crops that are primarily used to feed livestock and produce processed food. Our diet is dominated by high-calorie foods made from these subsidized crops, and a growing body of research connects this diet to increases in obesity and the diseases that go with it.

The solution? We need to eat more fruits and vegetables—and therefore, we need policies that encourage farmers to grow them. But the agribusiness industry is fighting to protect the status quo.

Industrial Agriculture

The late 20th century saw a major transformation in U.S. agriculture. Farms grew to enormous sizes, becoming more focused on a few crops and increasingly dependent on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Animal production also changed. Most of our meat and poultry now comes from CAFOs—confined animal feeding operations—where large numbers of animals are fattened for slaughter in highly crowded conditions, their diet supplemented with copious amounts of antibiotics.

These methods of producing food leave a host of problems in their wake. Runoff from chemical inputs and CAFO waste pollutes our water and contributes to global warming; monoculture—the practice of planting a single crop over a large area—depletes soil and reduces biodiversity; reliance on antibiotics in animal production threatens our ability to use these drugs to fight human disease.

Genetic Engineering

Genetic engineering (GE), which manipulates an organism's genes to produce desired traits—most often by introducing genes from other species—has become a key component of the industrial food system.

GE technology does offer some potential benefits, but it also poses risks to human health and the environment that current regulations have not addressed effectively. And so far, GE solutions to food production problems haven't performed well in real-world applications, especially in comparison with less costly crop breeding and farming methods.

But the agribusiness giants who make GE products dominate the marketplace, leaving farmers with fewer and fewer non-GE options to choose from. And they have used their large lobbying budgets to help remove the teeth from what needs to be a careful, rigorous regulatory process.

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