It's time to overhaul the Farm Bill.
That's the message conveyed in a recent policy paper featured in "Science" magazine. The authors of the paper, entitled "Transforming U.S. Agriculture," argue that although U.S. farms have significantly increased their production yields in recent years, the environment and public health has been sacrificed.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, the lead author, Washington State University professor John Reganold said, "If mainstream, conventional farming systems were sustainable, then we would not have overdrawn aquifers, eroded and degraded soils and polluted surface and ground waters."
"We also have concerns with farm labor working conditions and animal welfare," Reganold added.
With those concerns in mind, some farms have striven to innovate, cultivating practices such as organic farming, conservation agriculture and grass-fed and other alternative livestock production. Some of these practices aren't abstract or new, of course, none are yet widespread.
While a 2010 report by the U.S. National Research Council proposes both incremental and transformative methods to improve agriculture sustainability, the "Science" piece argues that ambitious approaches and systemic changes must be the primary focus, not just crop rotations and reduced tillage.
The most pressing change must be achieved on the policy level. That change can be found in the 2012 Farm Bill, the federal government's primary agricultural and food policy tool.
"Most elements of the Farm Bill were not designed to promote sustainability," the "Science" report read. Subsidies have made our food system too dependent on a few grain crops, such as corn and soybeans, which are ultimately used for over-processed food and animal feed. Such an industrial food system damages the environment, and it also damages human health.
Or, as Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine's Elizabeth Kucinich described in her HuffPost blog, "The beneficiaries of agricultural subsidies laid out in this legislation are the corporations that convert crops like corn into corn syrup and soy into feed for the cows and pigs who end up in a McDonald's wrapper."
Reganold and his co-authors suggest the Farm Bill be altered with a reduction in spending on subsidy programs that hide the risks associated with conventional production systems. In other words, we need to stop paying people to damage our land and our health.
Instead, the report's authors suggest the funds go to farming systems that embrace sustainability by protecting the environment, farmers and communities while still providing abundant and affordable food.
Mark Bittman voiced similar sentiments in the New York Times, arguing, "What subsidies need is not the ax, but reform that moves them forward. Imagine support designed to encourage a resurgence of small- and medium-size farms producing not corn syrup and animal-feed but food we can touch, see, buy and eat - like apples and carrots - while diminishing handouts to agribusiness and its political cronies."
The next Farm Bill is designated for 2012. "They're working on it right now," Reaganold warned. "It may be in place this time next year. There's a lot of lobbyists that influence that bill, so if people can contact their senate and congressional leaders, I would recommend it."
Reganold clarified that parts of the Farm Bill are fine, but other aspects, specifically the crop subsidies, need restructuring. "We want that money reallocated to encourage innovative farming systems," he added, "and to encourage sustainability brand products in the marketplace."
"Now is the time ... Once we get to early 2012, it might be too late," he said. "The decision will be already made. So this is the year. This year is the time for people to contact their representatives."
Not everyone believes transformative solutions can or should be achieved. Agriculture giant Cargill, Inc. emailed The Huffington Post stating that global food security "is a central challenge of our times, and conventional agriculture has to be part of the answer." A portion of their statement read:
We recognize there are different approaches and merits to conventional and organic agriculture. However, taking organic to the scale of commercial would require three times the amount of land to feed our rapidly growing world population, which would create its own set of environmental consequences.
In our experience, these farmers-- both those who farm conventional and organically-grown products--generally do practice sustainable farming methods. One of the problems with the word "sustainable" is there are many definitions which go beyond "certified organic" farming.
After detailing ways their farmers engage in positive practices, the organization's statement concluded, "All of these are tenets of sustainable farming and it is a shame that conventional farmers are not being recognized for their significant efforts in this arena."
Reganold acknowledges that the biggest critics of the report will be supporters of conventional agriculture, some from the corporate agri-business and big farms. But, as Reganold explained, "It's not that big farms are bad. Big farms can be good. We have some innovative large farms. But most large mainstream farms are mainly conventional, and those farms could be more sustainable."
Consumers, too, can affect change, most notably by changing their shopping habits. Markets already notice a shift in demand, as more people look for food that considers animal welfare, worker safety and local and organic practices.
"People can vote with their dollars," Reaganold added. "And they can eat a lot better. They can eat whole grain foods and more vegetables, basically a more plant-based diet that puts less of a strain on our agricultural system."
"You can make a difference," he said. "You have an impact."