It’s quite easy to sit here and criticize the food system. Through a variety of different lenses – animal welfare, environmental harm, fossil fuel reliance, the harmful effects of chemicals, destruction of soil, or the chronic indebted of farmers who are at the mercy of large scale food processors and distributors – it is very apparent that some significant flaws exist. Yet proposing a solution is a bit more difficult. Ultimately the essential question that concerns most of us (and our governments, too) is simple: “What’s for dinner?”
The “Green Revolution” was a technology-driven answer to the problem of feeding the earth’s expanding population. Not only are there more humans on this planet, less and less of them are actually involved in agriculture. While for many of us in the Global North the question “what’s for dinner?” is a matter of choosing among a variety of options, when asked on a mass scale it becomes much more existential. A city like New York, for instance, needs a constant supply of food. It’s the difference between life as usual or chaos.
As individual consumers we generally have choices that allow us to eat ethically if we decide to do so. To what extent these choices are available to us, though, does depend on socio-economic status and location. As it currently stands, eating ethically is primarily the domain of those privileged with the access and financial stability to make these choices,many of whom scoff at those without the means or education to do the same. Is it possible to create a food system capable of feeding billions that utilizes sustainable and ethical agricultural methods?
One reason why it is difficult to answer this question is because the majority of agricultural research in the U.S. is privately funded by companies like Monsanto. As more sustainable and self-sufficient methods would mean a loss of business, it is in their interest to keep things as they are. The U.S. government currently offers insignificant grants for projects and research oriented towards transformative agroecology. Yet research conducted by universities in Minnesota and Iowa, known as the Marsden Farm study, did show that just introducing basic changes like crop rotation could increase profits and yields while minimizing waste and pollution. It’s a sign that alternatives are out there if we put the time and finances into researching and developing them.
The U.S. government already plays a major role in our current food system by subsidizing large scale industrial agriculture. By this I mean to say our tax money is being used to poison us and the environment. This same money could instead go to farmers who are taking sustainable and ethical approaches to food production. By directing research towards alternative methods, and by providing support for farmers who are using these methods the government would be making a great deal of progress in changing up the food system. It is up to us as voters to put into positions of power politicians who are willing to take action on these concerns, and to hold out government accountable.
Any sort of legislative effort to change the food system will need to be accompanied by cultural changes. A renewed emphasis on food education and teaching our youth how to cook would be a good start. But all of us realizing that not every meal needs meat, and not every season is tomato season, is equally important. Growing gardens as opposed to having lawns may require a bit more effort, but it also saves a great deal of money long term and can promote stress relief. Community gardens, creative use of urban green spaces, and expanding indoor growing operations are other ways of making food production more local, and can be used for educative purposes. We can become more accustomed to the notion of seasonality in our diet, and support local farmers, by investing in services that provide locally produced vegetables via weekly deliveries.
If there is one point in all of this, it is that what we eat should make us feel good not just physically, but also ethically. We should be able to reflect on where our meal came from without any sort of guilt that what we ate meant depriving another living being of a happy existence, the destruction of the environment, or the denial of our progeny the opportunity to do the same. Think about this the next time you ask the question, “What’s for dinner?”