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Why You Should Worry: Five Unhappy Truths about the U.S. Food System

September 24, 2014 |

Photo by David Sands

Michigan Urban Farming Initiative Photo by David Sands

While Seedstock regularly profiles those who are taking a sustainable and local approach to creating a new food economy, the fact remains that industrial farming and distribution methods still reign supreme in America. So we are taking a step back to remind ourselves why their work is so important.

The convergence of processed foods, chemically intensive farming and a gas-guzzling supply chain have created a food system in the United States that would have seemed fantastical—and quite possibly nightmarish—to folks who lived in this country just a century ago.

Here are five worrisome facts about the U.S. food system to keep in mind the next time you go grocery shopping.

Farmers Are Aging

Grant Wood’s portrayal of an elderly farmer in his classic painting, “American Gothic,” is surprisingly contemporary, based on recent statistics.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture issued in February of 2014, the average age of the principal operator of a farm or ranch in the United States now stands at 58.3 years old, up from 57.1 during the last survey in 2007.

It’s part of troubling upward trend. A U.S. News and World Report breakdown of the data found that over the past three decades, that figure has climbed from 50.5 years to its current high-water mark of 58.3, an increase of roughly eight years. Unless a younger generation shows up to take the reins, U.S. farmers could soon become a dying breed.

Mid-size Farms Are Declining

In addition to an increasingly geriatric population, mid-size family farms are also losing ground to Big Agriculture. The average size of U.S. farms has doubled across geography and commodities in the last 20-25 years, and research has shown that ownership of cropland is becoming increasingly polarized between very big farms and a proliferation of tiny farms, with mid-sized operations seeing the greatest decline.

The USDA’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS), reveals that in 2011 the average farm size in the U.S. was 234 acres.

But few farms actually reflect that average; of the country’s 1.68 million farms, the majority, 80 percent, fell below the mean size in acreage, however, most of the actual cropland belonged to farms of 1,000 acres or more. In a USDA study of consolidation patterns between 1987 and 2007, author James McDonald concluded that cropland shifted to larger farms for most products in most states.

The silver lining: although acreage has moved over to large owners in recent years, 96 percent of crop production is still handled by family farms, according to data from the  USDA’s 2011 ARMS report, and small farms are increasing.

The concern: Its hard to succeed as a small farmer. USDA analysis says that small farms are much more likely to “exit the sector” than large ones.

The Carbon Footprint is Large

With all the talk of climate change these days, it’s important to be mindful of how lifestyles, including eating habits, contribute to the problem.

A 2000 study by the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems estimated that diesel fuel accounts for 25 percent of the total energy consumed in the U.S. food system.

Average Food Miles is a measure that’s sometimes used to help people wrap their heads around how much fuel is being burned to meet food distribution needs. In 2001, Rich Pirog, then-associate director at Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, examined the paths that 28 different fruits and vegetables produced in the United States traveled to get to Chicago.

The analysis determined that the average distance using the conventional food distribution methods at 1,546 miles. That figure was contrasted with data from three local Iowa food projects, where producers provided their goods to nearby markets like restaurants and hospitals. The local food programs tallied up to an average distance of 44.6 miles. Critics have noted that the 1,546 mile statistic is only accurate for those living in the Chicago area, but even so, the example helps shed light on the gas-guzzling consequences of long-distance food shipping.

Obesity Is Frighteningly Common

In the age of super-sized fries, it’s become easy to mindlessly chomp down on snack food. But what happens to that deluxe burger once it flies off the table? For a whole lot of people, it turns into unhealthy blubber. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over one-third of Americans, a staggering 78.6 million adults, qualified as obese in 2011-12 based on a study published in the Journal of American Medical Association.

Obese people who merely overweight, but are so excessively heavy their body fat can lead to seriously detrimental conditions like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer. While societal norms like extra portions at meals and our love affair with the automobile certainly have played a play a part in creating this unhealthy situation, structural factors like lack of access to healthy foods like fruits and vegetables in some communities can make it even harder to eat well.

We Waste Almost Half Our Food

What happens to food after it reaches its desired destination? Regrettably, a good deal of it ends up in the garbage. Roughly 30 to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is wasted, according to a 2013 joint report by the USDA and EPA.

They estimate that in 2010, a whopping 133 billion pounds of food from the nation’s residences, retail food outlets and eateries ended up as fodder for the waste stream. These troubling figures caused the two agencies to issue a U.S. Food Waste Challenge in 2013 calling on those involved with all levels of the food chain to reduce, recover, and recycle food waste. Perhaps it’s time we start putting the nation’s landfills on a diet.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled Seedstock programming, where we report on the innovators are working to reverse these trends.

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