Columnist, Food

(Paul Reid/For The Washington Post)

The food movement has a problem: It’s right about what’s wrong with our system, but wrong about how to fix it.

But what is the “food movement?” I hear you asking. For these purposes, we’ll call it the loose coalition of sustainability-minded people calling for the food system to be more focused on environmental and human health. There are lots of players with lots of agendas, but the key issues boil down to a familiar few: We have a chemical-intensive system that crowds out biodiversity, depletes the soil and pollutes the water to grow corn and soy for cheap meat and processed food, which make us fat and sick. While we can talk about the extent to which these things are true (and I have, in eye-glazing, patience-trying detail), it’s hard to look at the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico or the inexorable rise in obesity and deny that they’re problems.

How do we fix it? You’ve seen the bumper stickers. Buy fresh, buy local. Support the small, diverse, organic (or organic-ish) farm that supplies the farmers market and local restaurants with fresh vegetables. And that’s a great idea; local agriculture brings a host of benefits, from delicious strawberries to a much-needed reminder that food has to come from somewhere.

But it cannot fix that chemical-intensive system that crowds out biodiversity, depletes the soil, pollutes the water, etc. And that’s not a lack of confidence in, or enthusiasm for, that kind of small farm. It’s simply a recognition that there are economic, logistic, topographical and even arithmetic reasons that those farms can only be a small slice of a reimagined, responsible, food system. There are at least four reasons:

They don’t grow the right stuff.

The crops these farms grow are fruits and vegetables, and, even if we all eat a produce-rich diet, fruits and vegetables cannot be more than a sliver of our agricultural system. The United States has about 400 million acres of cropland, and only about 4 percent of it is fruits and vegetables (what the USDA calls “specialty crops”). I know I’m repeating myself here, but if we all ate the recommended servings of produce, we might double that acreage. However, there is no realistic scenario under which produce is more than 10 percent of cropland. And 10 percent cannot be the solution.


Ernie Card walks at his farm’s produce stand in Lisbon, Maine, in 2006. (Pat Wellenbach/AP)

They can’t grow the right stuff.

The reason small, local, diverse farms grow vegetables (and sometimes livestock) is that those are high-margin products. The crops that carpet the vast swaths of the Midwest cannot be successfully grown small and local, because you need economies of scale to make those crops profitable. What’s great about staple crops such as oats, lentils, barley and, yes, corn and soy is that they produce huge amounts of nutritious, affordable food per acre. (Of course, when you turn them into processed foods and ethanol and animal feed, you lose some of those advantages.) It’s hard to grow grains and legumes at small scale because you would have to charge way too much for them to keep your farm afloat, and one of the chief virtues of those crops is that they’re affordable.

The land is in the wrong place.

Look at a chart where the cropland is and where the people are. They don’t match. Take the Northeast (from Maine to the District): It’s got 3 percent of the cropland but 20 percent of the population. By contrast, the northern plains (the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska) have 24 percent of the land but 2 percent of the population. It’s not just that the land is inequitably distributed. There’s an inherent problem in trying to grow food near the people who eat it. The more concentrated the population center is, the more expensive the land tends to be. Even if large tracts were available for growing food, they would often be prohibitively expensive.

Seasons.

In most parts of the country, local food is available only for a limited season. This is not just a problem with an image of American agriculture as a patchwork of small local farms; it’s one of the key reasons that the crops grown on the large farms — the grains and legumes — are, as they always have been, the backbone of the human diet. They are storable. Harvest in September, eat in June — or the next June, or even the one after that.

Even though the lion’s share of agriculture’s impact on human and environmental health comes from the industrialized portion of our food supply, the fix isn’t to replace industrialized with nonindustrialized, or corn with broccoli. The fix is to focus on the grains and legumes that are staple crops; grow them better and incorporate them, whole, into our diet.


A combine unloads a hopper full of soybeans at sunset on a farm in Fairfield County, Ohio. (Ty Wright/Bloomberg News)

Right now, virtually the only label out there for “better industrialized” is organic. In some ways, organic agriculture has an environmental edge over conventional, but the standard was developed to conform to an idea of “naturalness,” not to minimize environmental impact. And so, while organic farms tend to have healthier soil and to lock away more carbon in that soil, conventional systems have higher yields and can more easily reduce the need to disturb the soil by tilling, which can help soil retain water and reduce runoff. Since runoff is one of the primary problems — it’s responsible both for degrading soil health and for water quality problems like the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico — that’s an important advantage.

If local and organic are only a limited part of the solution, what does a broader image of a responsible food supply look like?

I asked Tim Griffin, director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and he wrote in an email, “Having a food system that has multiple scales is better than having a preponderance of one scale (either large or small).” The growing of grains and legumes isn’t inherently less sustainable than growing produce, he says, but he would like to see a system where farms can take advantage of economies of scale without producing a homogenous landscape.

Suzy Friedman, senior director of agricultural sustainability at the Environmental Defense Fund, similarly sees roles for “farms of all sizes and production methods.” A responsible food system incorporates conservation methods that make sense for the kind of farm in question, and she looks to innovation, tools for precision fertilizing and pest control, and reliable measurement of results to help farmers do that, something that cooperation across the food chain and policies that promote, rather than discourage, sustainable practices can drive.

In general, the experts I talk to about this have a view of sustainability that encompasses all sizes and all crops, with local and organic playing an important, but necessarily small, role.

Michael Rozyne plays that role. He’s the founder of Red Tomato, a Massachusetts food hub that connects midsize regional produce growers to supermarkets, and he wants the push for a better food system to focus on the growers and the practices, not the label. And he’s optimistic that consumers are moving in that direction. “I do sense a real openness to the idea that the story is more complex than they thought, and they don’t have to cling to the one thing they feel safe eating,” he told me.

If you’re a consumer, it’s hard to look beyond labels because, well, there are no labels to look for. All you’ve got is local and organic, and it should be the food movement’s top priority to move beyond that slice of the solution.

How? It’s time to change the focus. Local and organic are mission accomplished; awareness is widespread. Continuing to push those two things will further entrench the idea that they’re the only solution, and that idea is the enemy of real improvement. Move on to where a change in farming can make a much bigger difference: the hundreds of millions of acres of commodity crops.

I talk to a lot of farmers of those crops who are making environmental impact a top priority and implementing practices to improve their soil health, reduce nutrient runoff and retain water. We have to start thinking about how consumers can use their buying power to support those farmers. It’s a tall order, in part because it means involving the large companies that both supply and buy from those farmers, and many of those companies have been tagged as the enemies of environmental and public health. But the first step has to be the acknowledgment — say it out loud! — that local and organic can’t solve the problem.

The food movement has been instrumental in educating consumers about the problems in our system. It’s time to focus on fixing them.