What You Can Do: Consumer- and Citizen-based Approaches to Sustainable Farming
The past few newsletters I have been exploring the road to sustainable agriculture, laying out all the consequences of an industrialized system and defining the antidotal principles and practices. Now, I will outline the individual and policy solutions to tackle these problems and implement a sustainable model.
Pay Attention to the Source of Your Food
Demand needs to come from the consumer to create and expand sustainable markets. Prioritizing sustainably sourced products over industrially sourced products is a crucial mechanism of change we can all participate in. I say “industrially sourced” as if there is some glaring distinction among the tens of thousands of items lining grocery aisles, but I am well aware that this task is not easy. You would spend hours in a grocery store if you tried to uncover the farm behind the fresh veggies or boxed grains or frozen fish, and most people would not bother to scrutinize every product they swipe off the shelves. The centralization of food in large retail chains has made the origin of agricultural products inconspicuous at best and impossible to pinpoint at worst. Even for produce, which is whole and unchanged post-harvest, often the farm is not mentioned anywhere on the label. Nowadays, only a few companies control the food system, which means food is sourced from large, consolidated farms or imported from countries with minimal regulations. When you inspect further, you might see that a bag of romaine lettuce was grown in Mexico, or a bunch of mustard greens came from “USA, Canada.” Thus, you would be hard-pressed to find out whether the farm(s) that grew the wheat that became the pasta in your shopping cart really uses a regenerative management system. In this modern world of concentrated food shopping, the connection between farmer and consumer is severed. In fact, this anonymity is a key hallmark of the industrialized and corporatized nature of agriculture, in which a multitude of multinational biotech, seed, chemical, and food processor and manufacturer companies all contribute to the end product in the store.
Nevertheless, if shopping in big supermarkets is your only choice, deciphering the myriad of misleading eco-labels can be helpful – but isn’t always. As I have expounded in How Do We Achieve "Sustainable"?, the organic label does not guarantee environmental protection, improved health, or social equity. Still, the benefits of avoiding potent synthetic chemicals are arguably still significant, especially for the “dirty dozen” fruits and veggies that lack a protective peel.
In previous articles, I neglected to detail all the concerns with livestock farms. But here’s my spiel: about 70 percent of meat comes from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or “factory farms,” in which hundreds of cows, turkeys, chickens, or pigs are forced together in cramped dirt or caged enclosures and essentially tortured until death. The lack of space to roam and graze is a breeding ground for disease, requiring workers to inject antibiotics in the livestock to prevent infections, which encourages antibiotic resistance in humans and the emergence of “superbugs.” Additionally, the animals may be fattened solely on grain – usually an unnatural and distressing dietary choice – and growth hormones. Generally, the animals in these feedlots are more agitated and diseased, and therefore medicated – and you consume lower quality animal products, as a result. Thus, when shopping for dairy, beef, pork, and poultry products, other labels you may want to look out for include, for instance, “grass-fed” beef with “no hormones” and “no antibiotics”; “organic” and “pasture-raised” eggs; and “certified humane” or “animal welfare approved” beef, chicken, and pork. It is really crucial that you do more research, as some of these terms are meaningless for certain farms – e.g. the FDA banned the use of growth hormones in poultry production. Also, “cage-free” or “free-range” egg carton labels, while cheaper for consumers, are backed by less rigorous standards, considering that the hens may lack adequate (or any) access to the outdoors.
Ultimately, finding the “right” label really depends on your personal nutritional, social, and ethical concerns. I would encourage you to do more digging to uncover both your priorities and the legitimacy of the label in accordance with those priorities. When you are unsure of the label’s integrity, try to identify the farm and peruse the company’s website. Inevitably, there are flaws with relying on marketing over more personalized connections to farmers, and consequently this method poses an extra burden on consumers to discern deceptive versus genuine claims. It amazes me that our food these days even needs such interminable markers to identify quality products – that every product cannot simply bring this reassurance.
But going beyond these shopping changes might mean avoiding large retailers altogether. I would encourage people to check out a farmer’s market, which offers locally grown, fresh produce and high quality meat directly from the farmer’s themselves – no middlemen involved. You can even become a CSA (community-supported agriculture) member and receive a regular share of meat and seasonal fruits and veggies. If you cannot access a farmer’s market (although there are plenty cropping up in suburbs and urban areas alike), you may find a nearby smaller health food store or food co-op that buys from sustainable wholesalers and openly displays the farm on the label or grocery shelf. When you shop at these places, you can directly ask the farmer about her practices, check the farm’s website, or trust that the shop owner has done this research. You end up exhausting comparatively little effort in determining whether the food you consume is raised or grown sustainably.
Often, the “local” and “small” farms are able to uphold the highest standards of sustainability. In contrast, the larger and more centralized farms confront a greater challenge when it comes to avoiding chemicals, tillage, or exploitative labor. However, many scholars and farmers contest this claim, and alliances between farmers and large food companies may help mitigate those particular challenges. While the proper size of the farm is a controversial topic, this issue is mostly irrelevant for the small agricultural state of Connecticut, where farms are just 69 acres on average. To put that in perspective, the average size of farmland in the country is upwards of 400 acres. Thus, finding a farm that utilizes these environmentally-conscious methods is probably not difficult. In fact, I have spoken with various farmers in the state who already implement a holistic approach to farming by regenerating the soil, protecting their workers, and providing healthy products for their customers.
Unfortunately, there is a higher expense of purchasing solely from health food stores and farmers directly. Many experts attribute this problem to the devaluation of food in an industrial system. In other words, food has become artificially cheap, unreflective of the negative externalities from environmental damage and harm to people’s health and well-being. “Internalizing” these externalities and spreading sustainable markets means reallocating our disposable income to enhance investment in our groceries. I know, this point is controversial. But for consumers of means, consider the livelihood of the farmer who acts as a steward and caregiver for his community, and how he has to set fair prices for his products to support himself and his workers. Consumer culture must change so that we can appreciate the greater labor and time required to maintain a sustainable operation – one that does not rely on machines, inputs, and government subsidies. If your budget allows, prioritizing the healthful and resilient growing practices around food can connect you deeper to the land and community, improve your health, and protect the environment.
Of course, I recognize that for too many people, simply getting any meals on the table is a challenge. Thus, the source of food becomes a negligible concern for struggling families, and this mantra of revaluing our groceries can be perceived as completely elitist. Indeed, food insecurity plagues six million households in the United States, while forty million need government assistance to avoid going hungry. This issue is unacceptable in a country as affluent as ours, and our political leaders have a responsibility to make healthy, sustainably grown or raised food accessible for all (see my policy suggestions below). Moreover, there are many farms and organizations that are conscious of the argument of elitism in healthy eating and actively working to bring solutions. For instance, I worked at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project in New York, a small-medium nonprofit farm that makes it a point to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) payments with CSA shares. In Connecticut, many farmer’s markets now allow SNAP/EBT and sliding scale payment options, effectively improving the accessibility of farm-fresh food in our state. Visit CT.gov's Food Assistance to find out more.
2. Educate Yourself
I refrain from leaving you with individualized, consumer-minded choices. Consider further educating yourself on these topics to fully understand the benefits of regenerative farming. Many of us are not scientists and farmers, but simply care about the environment and the food we consume. Some of these concepts of soil biodiversity or carbon capture may be hard to visualize, which is why films like Kiss the Ground (available on Netflix) or The Biggest Little Farm (available on Amazon Prime and Hulu) can be incredible resources in helping people grasp the power of sustainable farming. These books have also helped me understand the current problems in our food system: The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan; Food Fix by Mark Hyman; Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food from Sustainable to Suicidal by Mark Bittman; The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson; Food Fight by McKay Jenkins; The Sustainable Economy by Robert Devine; and Farmacology by Daphne Miller. Additionally, you can read up on Civil Eats for more information on all kinds of issues related to food and agriculture.
3. Push Policymakers
Arguably the most important step in attaining transformative change revolves around the actions of policymakers. The lack of sustainable practices in favor of bigger, exploitative industrial methods reflects a politically institutionalized problem, including the revolving door between industry and government, campaign finance laws, and other political conditions that give unequal weight to agribusinesses. Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz once infamously declared for farms to “get big or get out.” Get big, that is, with advanced technology and the aerial spraying of glyphosate and chlorpyrifos. Historically, federal policies, from military aid packages to New Deal programs, have driven large-scale, intensive farming. Today, the Farm Bill, the most impactful piece of agricultural legislation, predominantly bolsters large, conventional farms through commodity subsidies and insurance indemnities. However, these programs do not overwhelmingly support needy farmers, as originally intended. In fact, in 2016, large corporate farms with an income between $400,000 and $7 million received about a third of commodity payments and half of all crop insurance coverage.
These payments also blatantly disincentivize diverse cropping systems and proper soil practices to reduce risk. Case in point: between 1996 and 2016, less than one percent of subsidies covered fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts and, consequently, only around 3 percent of all cropland produced these specialty crops. Indeed, ending subsidies leads to biodiverse, productive, and profitable farms, as seen in New Zealand. Thus, the government has undeniably propped up the consolidated, centralized, environmentally and socially destructive food system in place today and we must replace these barriers with sound policies.
Fixing these problems requires creativity and imagination to create beneficial markets, an ethical society, and a robust food democracy to advance a sustainable system. Be aware of the issues from organizations that do the research and engage in pressure politics, wielding their resources (time, money, lobbying and organizing skills) to sway legislators in their favor. View the Sierra Club’s own comprehensive policy on soil health, climate change, proper farming practices, and more. The Organic Trade Association (OTA) works closely with Members of Congress and executive agencies, especially the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, to promote sustainable food and farming policy. Additionally, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) promotes federal policy reform in agriculture, food systems, natural resources, and rural communities, producing meaningful federal programs, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program or the National Organic Certification Cost Share. On the state level, organizations committed to promoting the expansion of sustainable practices include CT NOFA, the New CT Farmers Alliance, or the CT Council on Soil and Water Conservation.
Below is a list of the types of policy changes advocated by these crucial organizations, as well as scholars, farmers, environmental planners and consultants, and other experts in the sustainable agriculture space who have spoken with me. These ideas involve replacing counterproductive policies with a confluence of programs, investments, and regulations around sustainability. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, reflecting only the bare minimum of initiatives needed to advance a more just, resilient food system.
Needed Policy Changes:
End current subsidization policies (federal level)
Enforce more stringent workplace conditions that emulate New York State’s laws, allowing farmers and laborers minimum wage, overtime pay, disability insurance, union rights, and other benefits (federal level)
Increase WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) and SNAP funding so that low-income consumers can afford sustainably sourced products (federal and state level)
End zoning barriers to farmer’s markets and other events on farms (local level)
Align carbon pricing mechanisms with farmland carbon sequestration metrics (federal and state level)
Expand technical assistance provider programs (federal and state level)
Invest in initiatives that measure and monitor ecosystem services (organic matter content, nutrient availability, biodiversity above and below ground, water holding capacity, and more), as seen with the Soil Carbon Initiative (federal and state level)
Pay farmers for conserving ecosystem services, emulating Costa Rica’s Payment for Environmental Services (PES) program (federal and state level)
Revise tax policy: (federal and state level)
Implement a tax on ultra-processed, sugary foods
Implement a tax on agricultural pollution, levied on the sale of agrochemicals
Eliminate property taxes and create tax credits for farmers who practice sustainable techniques
Enact a carbon tax
Expand land and infrastructure grants for start-ups and clarify guidelines to facilitate the grant-application process (federal and state level)
Facilitate networks of small farmers to communicate and exchange information and expensive equipment with one another (state and local level)
Create information and labeling campaigns to encourage consumer awareness around the toxicity of agrochemicals, enforcing programs like California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (federal and state level)
Instill healthy food in public school systems through school gardens, farm-to-table school lunches, curricula on food systems, or home economics courses that teach kids to cook (state level)
While there is still much progress to be made, your actions do matter. You can make informed, consumer choices that simultaneously prioritize the environment and the health of your family and farmers. You can also be an active, involved citizen and keep policymakers on their toes, challenging existing law and pushing for revolutionary legislation. Currently, most farms in our country are not managed in a way that provides an optimal balance of agricultural production with ecological and public health. Thus, it will take the collection of individual actions to effectuate institutional changes, reversing our land’s current fate. While the situation leaves much to be desired, too often environmentalists leave us with crippling anxiety over how to make change. We should resist feeling overwhelmed with despair or paralyzed by helplessness. A combination of knowledge, personal responsibility, government pressure, and coalition-building, as well as the will to innovate, collaborate, and persevere offers us hope for the future.
Shelley Rose is a Sierra Club Connecticut student intern.
Read more articles in this series on soil health and sustainable farming:
The Story of Soil by Shelley Rose
The Harmful Effects of Conventional Practices by Shelley Rose
How Do We Achieve Sustainable? by Shelley Rose
Bakst, Daren. “What You Should Know about Who Receives Farm Subsidies.” The Heritage
Foundation. Accessed December 23, 2021. https://www.heritage.org/agriculture/report/what-you-should-know-about-who-receives-farm-subsidies.
Hyman, Mark. Food Fix: How to Save Our Health, Our Economy, Our Communities, and Our
Planet--One Bite at a Time. S.l.: Little Brown Spark, 2020.
Organic Trade Association. “Download Details about Organic in Your State!” OTA. Accessed
August 16, 2020.