As veteran reporter and author Tom Philpott says, our food system is incredibly productive — but also incredibly fragile.
The consequences of this have become ever clearer over the past few years. We’re seeing it in the headlines, in our communities, and in grocery store prices, which have soared amid disease outbreaks, climate-fuelled disasters, and supply chain shocks.
These kinds of crises now seem a part of everyday life. But our food system isn’t built to handle the stress — in fact, it’s caused or worsened many of these crises. Instead, our food system is designed to maximize corporate profits.
Tom knows this well. He wrote his book, Perilous Bounty, after 20 years of reporting on food issues and a few years spent running his own farm.
Earlier this month, Food & Water Watch’s Senior Food Policy Analyst Rebecca Wolf spoke with Tom at our September Livable Future Live event. They discussed the costs of our fragile system, the policies pushing it closer to disaster, and how we can start transforming it for the better.
“Get Big or Get Out” Makes Our Food Supplies Vulnerable to Crises
One of the major problems with our food system is how concentrated it is. Just a few, massive corporations grow, raise, and sell most of the food we eat. This trend is decades in the making, as lawmakers and regulators allowed Big Ag to grow with unchecked power over our most precious resources.
Unable to compete with the giants, many small- and medium-sized farms have been pushed out of the market. The system drives them to “get big or get out,” wiping livelihoods and even whole farming communities off the map.
Our food system is geographically concentrated, too. As Tom detailed, much of our grain (mostly used as feed in the factory farm system) comes from the Corn Belt in the Midwest. Meanwhile, the majority of our fruits, vegetables, and nuts are grown on mega-farms in California, notably in the San Joaquin Valley.
Not only is this bad for small farms and rural communities; it makes our whole food system more vulnerable to shocks. It’s like putting all our eggs in one basket or betting our entire savings on just a few numbers in a lottery.
When disaster strikes one region or one mega-farm, there are huge ripple effects across the country. For instance, California’s Salinas Valley produces 70% of the country’s lettuce. As a result, disease in 2022 and flooding this year have driven prices for lettuce skyward.
Environmental Destruction Drives Our Food System
At the same time, U.S. policies encourage models of farming that damage not only our health and environment, but the land’s ability to grow food in the first place.
In the Corn Belt, farmers plant acres upon acres of a single crop, usually soybean or corn. Then, in the winter after harvest season, they keep the fields unplanted.
But in early spring 2019, the Midwest saw uncommonly powerful storms. These storms washed away massive amounts of soil, along with important nutrients and carbon stores.
Around that time, Tom visited a farmer named Tom Francis who was doing things differently. As Tom drove out to Francis’ farm, he passed gray, dead soil, muddy ditches, and great gashes in the land where storms had battered the bare fields.
When they met up, Francis took Tom out into his fields, zooming on a three-wheeler to beat the sunset. As Tom shared with us,
We go to this field, and it was this winter rye that [Francis] was really excited about, and I had just seen brown, really ugly land all day, and that gray that you know is eroded soil. And then here I was in this sea of green, and there are birds flying around… His farm was this living ecosystem amid ecological squalor.
Instead of leaving his soil bare in the winter, Francis planted winter rye as a cover crop. The crop not only protected the soil from the storms; it fed his hogs and cows, too.
U.S. Food Policy Has Pushed Our Food System to the Brink
So why don’t more farmers do what Francis does?
The status quo of soy and corn planting is environmentally destructive, but it’s shaped by federal commodity policy to be that way.
Thanks to the rise of factory farms and the demand for cheap feed, it’s what the market pushes. And policies, like crop insurance, just barely keep farmers in business, even after a terrible season like the one the Corn Belt saw in 2019. It’s a system built to create the cheapest inputs for Big Ag as possible.
U.S. policies have also paved the way for corporate concentration and the devastation of rural communities. It has made farming economically unsustainable for most farmers except the richest and most powerful.
However, just as policy created this system, policy can reimagine it. It can make our system fair and resilient and help it to adapt and improve, even during crises.
But right now, Big Ag has a stranglehold on lawmakers and regulators. The only way to combat that, Tom says, is through people power:
Basically, the force that props up the status quo is the lobbying power of these corporations that dominate so much of the food system.… They have this, essentially, monopoly position, and they reap monopoly profits, and they invest, very rationally and smartly, a portion of that profit into maintaining the status quo.
And the only thing that we have at our disposal is people power, social movements. Voting with your fork is really important. I bet everyone on this call does it. But it’s not enough. We have to get political about food.
We couldn’t agree more.
To Save Our Food System From Disaster, We Need to Completely Overhaul It
We all want dependable, affordable, and safe food. We all want healthy environments and thriving local economies. And we all want to feel secure in our next meal. But with the way the U.S. currently grows and sells food, that vision is slipping further and further away.
That’s why at Food & Water Watch, we’re fighting to reorient our food system — toward families and farmers, not Big Ag.
This fall, Congress will pass the Farm Bill, a twice-in-a-decade piece of legislation that distributes billions of dollars to food programs. It includes policy that affects competition, crop insurance, and many of the other issues we discussed with Tom.
With members across the country and allies in Congress, we’re fighting for the Farm Bill we need. And we won’t stop fighting until we have a food system that is fair, resilient, safe, and sustainable.
Want to join our fight for a fair farm bill? Join our Fair Farm Bill Action Team!
Catch Our Full Conversation with Tom
Watch the full event below or on YouTube to learn more about:
- Tom’s story of working for a family farm and getting pushed out by Big Ag,
- The importance of regional food economies,
- How policy takes economic power away from small- and medium-sized farmers,
- How exports and U.S. policy are worsening world hunger,
- Why we desperately need public grain reserves, and
- Why our food system needs labor protections and labor organizing.
Resources and Links From the Event
- Get Tom’s book, Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It.
- For more on the Farm Bill and the policies we need, read our report, A Fair Farm Bill for All or check out this recap of our May Livable Future Live event focused on the Farm Bill.
- Volunteer with our Fair Farm Bill Action Team!
- View recordings and slides from our Farm Bill summer series about commodities, conservation, and competition.
- We’re also supporting the Farm System Reform Act to ban factory farms and help small farmers thrive in a fair market. Tell your members of Congress to support the Farm System Reform Act!
- Become a Food & Water Watch member! Make a gift to join our fight to ban factory factory farms and build a more sustainable food system.
- Join us in October for Against All Odds, our benefit to protect the planet.
- Learn more about our upcoming free, virtual Livable Future Live events.