WASHINGTON (June 12, 2018)—Farms in Maine have among the country’s smallest ecological footprints. Maryland farmers are doing some of the most innovative work to protect soil and water quality. Meanwhile, Hawaii has developed some of the country’s best infrastructure to connect their farmers to local consumers. These and other states were ranked in a new scorecard released today that uses a wide variety of public data to assess state food systems from farm to fork, with criteria ranging from sustainable farming practices to access to nutritious food and rates of diet-related diseases.
According to the analysis from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS):
- Vermont, New Hampshire and Maryland received top marks for adoption of conservation farming practices—including planting cover crops, moving grazing livestock between pastures, and practicing agroforestry—that protect soil and water quality.
- Farms in Alaska, New Hampshire and Maine have the smallest ecological footprints, taking into account rates of soil erosion, pollutant runoff, climate emissions, carbon sequestration and groundwater quality.
- Farms in Florida, Wyoming and Montana are on top for producing foods encouraged by federal nutrition guidelines, such as fruits and vegetables, rather than corn and soy.
- Vermont, Maine and Hawaii have done the best job developing infrastructure—including food policy councils, farmers markets and food hubs—that knit together the food system and connect farmers to consumers.
- Residents in Utah, Colorado and Vermont did best in the category that includes measures of nutrition and health, such as rates of fruit and vegetable consumption, food security and prevalence of diet-related diseases such as hypertension, obesity and diabetes.
States that ranked the highest overall when scores from all categories were tallied were Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Washington, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Oregon, Montana and Connecticut. Although top performing states did well in some categories, no state had exceptional scores across the board. More work is needed to make states’ food systems truly healthy, sustainable and just.
“We ranked states on the sustainability of their farms, impacts on the surrounding environment, and the diets and health outcomes of their residents because these factors are intrinsically tied together,” said Marcia DeLonge, senior scientist in the Food and Environment Program at UCS. “Federal and state policies that address one element of the system often affect the others, so we should enact policies that address them holistically rather than piece by piece.”
UCS analysts created this scorecard to help stakeholders and decision-makers at the local, state, and federal level better understand the overall health, sustainability, and equity of the food system across the United States. Current federal policies, in particular, provide significant incentives for the system to produce processed food with little nutritional value. This has contributed to a public health crisis as rates of chronic, diet-related diseases such as diabetes have spiked during recent decades—among both adults and children. Moreover, federal policies promote an unsustainable industrial system that has damaging impacts on soil, air, water, human health, and rural economies. A better food system would make it easier for all people to put enough nutritious food on the table, while also ensuring that farmers can thrive, and protecting soil and water for future generations. This scorecard highlights opportunities and models for improving every state's food system.
“Our scorecard takes a broad approach to a complex system that touches all of our lives every day, and our findings suggest opportunities for win-win solutions,” said DeLonge. “For example, when states create local markets for sustainably produced fruits and vegetables, more residents have access to healthy food, and farmers have more opportunities to diversify and adopt more sustainable farming practices.”
In Detroit, for example, the Double Up Food Bucks program makes it easier for low-income residents to buy locally produced fruits and vegetables at farmers markets and grocery stores across the city. In its first five years, the federally funded program has helped participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) purchase more than $5 million in produce from Michigan farmers and vendors.
Based on this analysis, UCS offered the following recommendations that could support more of innovation in food policy, and better results:
- Congress should increase federal investments to enable every state to create healthier, more sustainable food systems from farm to fork. Many federal programs should be protected, strengthened and expanded in the five-year federal farm bill, which Congress is negotiating. These include the Conservation Stewardship Program, which offers incentives for farmers to adopt more sustainable practices; the Organic Research Extension Initiative and the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program, which fund innovative research; the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which provides grants to support and train new farmers and ranchers, especially military veterans and people from socially disadvantaged groups; the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program and other programs that help provide local markets for farmers and improve healthy food access for all; and SNAP, which ensures that the most vulnerable individuals and families in the U.S. can put food on their tables.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in administering its programs, should ensure they promote synergies and help every state maximize overall benefits.
- States and localities should explore every option to use agriculture, education, health, tax and zoning policies to address problems in the food system to make their residents, ecosystems, and economies healthier and more sustainable. Jurisdictions that do not already have food policy councils in place should consider establishing such coordinating bodies.
- The USDA and land-grant universities should expand efforts to collect and share data on food and agriculture systems. This would give researchers, policymakers, and other stakeholders greater insight into the impacts of existing initiatives, and help them design programs that more effectively address problems within the food system.