The Case for Presidential Action to Reform our Farm and Food System

Published Dec 7, 2016


The current food system isn't working for Americans.

  • Too many of us lack access to affordable, healthy food, as evidenced by sharply climbing rates of diet-related illnesses like diabetes and hypertension, especially in communities of color.
  • Mid-sized family farms are dwindling, rural communities are hurting, and food system jobs are among the lowest-paying in the nation.
  • Outdated industrial food production methods are exhausting soil, causing costly environmental damage, and leaving farmers ever more vulnerable to climate change impacts like flooding and drought.

These problems are all made worse by the tangled mess of current federal food and farm policy, in which policies often work against each other. For example, on the one hand we spend considerable resources trying to encourage people to eat healthier food—and on the other, we invest billions of dollars in junk food by funneling the lion's share of farm subsidies to commodity crop producers.

The president could play a key leadership role in transforming this dysfunctional food system. Here are some of the ways this could benefit Americans:

Protecting our health—and our children's Diet-related diseases such as diabetes and hypertension are reducing life expectancy for young people, especially people of color. Current federal policy is part of the problem. Farm subsidies encourage overproduction of junk food ingredients while doing little to support fruit and vegetable farmers or make healthy food more available and affordable to consumers. And our federal dietary guidelines don't reflect current science on the health effects of added sugars, putting a generation of kids at needless risk.

By reforming and coordinating our nation's farm policies, we can reinforce federal dietary recommendations. Cutting commodity crop subsidies could level the playing field for farmers who grow healthy foods. And some of the money saved could be invested in innovative programs that are proven to increase access to healthy food in schools, day care facilities, and neighborhods in every zip code. Our analysis has shown that policies aligned to help all Americans eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables could save 127,000 lives and $17 billion in health care costs each year.

Boosting farmers' livelihoods and revitalizing rural communities Economic and demographic changes have done a number on rural America. As farmers get older and land prices get higher, midsize family farms are disappearing—and current policy is accelerating this trend, even though research has shown that areas having more midsize farms and a stronger middle class have lower poverty and unemployment rates, higher average household incomes, and greater socioeconomic stability. Meanwhile, industrial farming practices impose ever-rising costs for chemical inputs like fertilizers and pesticides.

To reverse these trends, a coordinated food and farm policy could help young and beginning farmers get access to credit and connect with local and regional markets, while also providing incentives and technical assistance for farmers to adopt sustainable practices with lower input costs.

Enhancing long-term productivity and resilience

Today's industrialized farms require massive chemical and energy inputs, leading to widespread pollution, soil degradation, and biodiversity loss. Industrial agriculture also contributes increasingly to global warming—and, in turn, is increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Agroecological systems, such as the prairie strips pictured here, can reduce or eliminate the impacts of industrial agriculture—and boost farm profits at the same time. But agroecology research is woefully underfunded, and federal policies could do much more to help farmers adopt sustainable practices successfully.

Fairness and dignity for food and farm workers

Nearly 20 million workers—one-sixth of the workforce—toil in U.S. farm fields, slaughterhouses, and processing plants, food warehouses, grocery stores, and restaurants. These jobs are among the lowest-paying in the nation: a recent survey of 600 food system workers found that only 13.5 percent earned a livable wage.

National security

Our national junk food addiction is threatening to compromise our military readiness. Approximately one in four young adults is ineligible for military service because of excess body fat, and the US Department of Defense spends an estimated $1 billion per year for medical care associated with weight-related health problems.​​​​​​​

Using taxpayers' money wisely

Reforming our food system would not only improve our health, our economy, and our environment, it would also save a whole lot of money. The negative impacts of the current food system—diet-related diseases, poverty wages for food workers, environmental damage from fertilizer and pesticide overuse—all come with a price tag, and it's the public that pays. A coordinated federal food policy could lower food system costs, to everyone's benefit.​​​​​​​

What the new administration should do

For decades, taxpayers have paid for federal policies that have produced an abundance of commodity crops, but have failed to promote the health and well-being of all Americans. Special interests that profit from the status quo have exerted their influence to maintain it, blocking policy reforms that could bring about the kind of transformative change our food system badly needs.

By taking action to promote such reforms, the president could show true leadership. Here are some steps that could begin the process:

In the administration's first year, take action on these priorities, which will benefit both rural and urban Americans and save taxpayer dollars:

  • Reform agricultural polices, subsidies, and supports to ensure fair markets and pricing for diverse farms of all sizes.
  • Increase children's access to healthy food and curtail junk food marketing to kids.
  • Support sustainable, diversified, and organic farming in all communities
  • End Fair Labor Standards exemptions for farmworkers.
  • Ban the practice of feeding antibiotics to animals that are not sick.

Coordinate efforts across federal agencies to reduce inefficiency, increase productivity, and develop policies that ensure every American has equal access to healthy, affordable food whose production is fair to workers and good for the environment, and keeps farmers on their land.

The administration's leadership on this front will strengthen the health and well-being of Americans across the economic spectrum, improve farmers' and workers' lives and rural economies' vitality, and enhance the nation's overall prosperity.

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