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October 2, 2019

In wealthy countries like the U.S., where food is cheap and readily available, agriculture has too often been an afterthought. But as the global crises we face become more severe, people are waking up to how important agriculture is to our daily lives and to the state of the world. Whether it is the climate crisis, the crisis of poverty and economic inequality, or humanitarian crises like migration, the problems and contradictions in our global system of food and agriculture sit at the center. It is critical that we change the way we produce our food.

The need for system change

There is now ample evidence that our current model of agriculture cannot continue, and policymakers are beginning to take action.

At the international level, the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on land showed that industrial agriculture is driving the climate crisis and must be addressed immediately. The United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization has launched the Decade on Family Farming, an initiative to galvanize support for smallholder agriculture, and the UN Committee on World Food Security will meet this month to officially recognize agroecology as a way to ensure food security in the face of climate change.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, the Warren and Sanders presidential campaigns have recently released unprecedented farm and agriculture policy plans to stop the economic, social, and environmental devastation caused by current agricultural system. Their plans would break up agribusiness monopolies, rein in overproduction, and ensure that agribusiness companies pay farmers a fair price for their crops.

Additionally, industrial agriculture and the land grabbing it facilitates are increasingly seen as major drivers for migration from Central America and other countries to the U.S. And even as our policies are driving people to flee their homes, the reception they get when they reach the U. S. is disgraceful.

Earlier this year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided a poultry processing plant in Mississippi, detaining hundreds of workers and leaving their children abandoned on the first day of school. This is but one example of the cruelty and injustice that migrant food workers face and on which our current food system is based.

From knowledge to action

Waking up is only the first step. It will take enormous, sustained action to transform the global food system. The good news is that alternatives already exist, we are more powerful than we know, and people are ready for change. It’s important to recognize a few facts:

  • First, the world currently produces enough food for more than 10 billion people. The actual population of the world is 8 billion, which means that hunger is not coming from a lack of food but rather a lack of access to food. Everyone has a basic human right to food – a right that is not widely acknowledged in the U.S. but is recognized by the United Nations and endorsed by many countries in their constitutions or national laws. In a world of plenty, fulfilling the human right to food is a must.
  • Second, agroecology can feed the world. Family farms produce over 80% of the world’s food. We don’t need chemical, industrial agriculture to grow food for everyone. Research (as well as real-life examples in communities) shows that agroecological systems can produce more per acre than industrial systems, all the while strengthening communities and ensuring biodiversity, balanced diets, and resilience to climate change. We can, and we must, transition to agroecology.
  • Third, there are lots of people who know how and want to farm. The agribusiness model has pushed most farmers off the land and made farming an economically precarious proposition at best. Very few of us farm anymore. But there are still many people who want to farm. There are young people who grew up on farms but feel pressured to leave since it is so hard to make a living. There are young people with no previous experience in farming but who want to do something meaningful with their hands, if only they could afford some land. And then there are the millions of landless food and farm workers, with unbelievable knowledge and expertise in producing food, who just need access to land. If we can address the many obstacles they face – making farming a viable livelihood, ensuring access to land and resources, and enforcing legal protections for immigrants, people of color, queer folks, and other marginalized communities – then we will have a new generation of farmers committed to a transformed system.
  • Fourth, transitioning to a new model of agriculture means healthier and more delicious food! As anyone who has grown up near a farm knows, farmers eat very well. Local, fresh produce grown without chemicals. Eggs and milk from chickens and cows that wander and graze on the grass. Breads and other foods baked and made by local artisans. All delicious, healthy food.
  • Fifth and finally, ecological agriculture is profitable and economically viable agriculture. The untold secret about industrial agriculture, like other extractive industries, is that it isn’t good business. This becomes crystal clear once we consider how much destruction and devastation it causes and truly account for those costs. A system of agriculture that reins in overproduction and is built around small-scale farms producing food primarily for local markets, will keep money in communities and will protect and regenerate the most valuable resource for farmers – the soil and the water.

We eat food every day. We literally cannot live without it. Ironically, food is so important that it becomes almost scary, and certainly upsetting, to consider how wrong, unjust, dangerous, and unhealthy our current food system is. And with so many of us having lost our connection to the land and forgetting how to grow food, the idea of challenging agribusiness companies and demanding democracy in our food system feels even scarier.

But there are millions of people who are fighting to bring justice to our world by transforming our food system. Over the course of this month, through key UN meetings and with a visit from partners in Brazil doing important work to protect the rights of smallholder farmers, we’ll offer ways you can plug into the struggle for a more just and sustainable food and agriculture system. Stay tuned!