What is a food system?
Figure 1. Our food systems are defined by the intersection
between humans and the environment we live in.
Food systems, at the most basic level, include the diverse spectrum of interactions between humanity and the environment we live in. Healthy food systems ensure access to safe, healthy, and nutritious food for all people.
Because most people reading this article will have neither grown food for themselves nor experienced true hunger, and because contemporary food systems are so heavily regulated by external forces, many of us have simply learned to ignore the role food systems play as the central foundation and the driving force of our economy. Yet without a functional food system, we have no society, and without society, we have no economy.
Figure 1 illustrates a food system as a square foundation defined by four interconnected cornerstones. Because these cornerstones are interconnected, it is impossible to influence one, without influencing all four. Each cornerstone is defined as follows:
- Environment represents the entire natural resource base, including land, soil, air, and water, that is necessary for growing food.
- Diversity represents both the biodiversity necessary to maintain healthy ecosystems, and the socioeconomic and/or cultural diversity that ensures the equitable movement of goods and services throughout society. Diversity is often an indicator of freedom, because people and biota both thrive in environments where life and liberty are valued.
- Agriculture in this context, includes all the human interventions that go into the growing, gathering, processing, and distribution of food for human consumption.
- Health refers to the energetic state of the system, and may include human, environmental, or even economic health. A healthy system is dynamic and mobile. A sick or dead system is static.
Figure 2a. Food systems form the foundation that
defines an economy.
Food systems define every economy
The relationship between a food system and the economy at large can be illustrated with a pyramid that places the food system at the foundation, commerce systems, including industries like transportation, communication, and manufacturing at intermediate levels, and governments that regulate access to resources at the top (Figure 2). When governments foster a healthy foundation, economies remain robust and stable. This is because those resources that are in the highest demand, those that are most crucial for survival (food, clean air and water, good health, diversity, etc.) remain accessible.
Symptoms and Consequences of a Damaged Food System
A food system is damaged whenever safe, nutritious food becomes inaccessible to any part of the population. Obvious examples include those regions of the world where chronic hunger prevails. However, earlier warning signs are important to recognize because early intervention is more efficient. Some early warning signs of food system decay include:
1. Inflated prices of natural resources, which indicate increased demand and/or diminished supply of ecosystem services.
2. Inflated food prices.
3. Decreased diversity and/or nutritional quality of whole foods.
4. Increased incidence of chronic and/or infectious disease.
5. Loss of farmland to urban development.
6. Decreased collective understanding of the relationship between humans, agriculture, environment, and health.
7. Loss of biodiversity.
8. Decreased environmental quality.
The consequences of a damaged food system are felt at every level of our economy. As the incidence of disease increases, healthcare costs go up, and workforce productivity declines. As food and natural resources inflate, prices of food services and manufactured goods also rise. This means workers with less income are paying more to meet their daily needs. Meanwhile, those individuals who are not sick find themselves assuming larger roles, performing their own work and filling in for those who cannot complete their own. Commerce declines and social unrest increases as more and more people are unable to meet their basic needs.
Governments often respond to these symptoms with overarching “solutions” that restrict the behaviors of businesses and individuals. The focus on addressing the symptoms with increased regulations often merely confounds the problem. Prescribed “solutions” repeatedly fail simply because food systems are both complex and dynamic, so when options are limited by regulations, critical diversity is lost. Since each individual’s environment differs, each individual’s needs (and potential solutions) differ. Therefore, one-size-fits-all, government solutions should be limited to actions that protect individual rights to life and liberty.
Take for example, the United States Department of Agriculture’s efforts to sequence the wheat genome
and the genome of the wheat stem rust pathogen
, in addition to distributing new wheat germplasm, as part of their effort to address food insecurity. These genomic sequencing efforts involve enormous amounts of research, the costs of which are supported by taxpayers throughout the United States. Yet in the United States, gluten intolerances and wheat insensitivities are reaching epidemic proportions!
This means that citizen tax dollars which are said to be for addressing food insecurity are being spent to develop technologies that actually increase production of a grain already known to make many of these same taxpayers sick. This is not to suggest that restrictions be placed on wheat production. Wheat has provided food for many. But when we subsidize efforts to grow a targeted crop, like wheat, we simultaneously reduce efforts to grow alternate, competitive crops. And when we take money from any taxpayer to create something that is useless to that taxpayer, we have robbed the taxpayer of the resources that would otherwise be available to meet real needs for the taxpayer. This is only one of may possible examples illustrating why overarching, government driven solutions simply cannot provide meaningful solutions that equitably restore complex, diverse, and robust food systems. Governments who focus efforts on ensuring that small scale, locally controlled food systems thrive will always make more significant gains in promoting food security.
So How Do We Fix It?
First, we need to shift our focus from the intermediate levels of commerce and industry, and focus on the the foundational cornerstones of health, environment, agriculture, and diversity.
Second, we need to recognize that each cornerstone represents an enormous sector of our economy, so restoration efforts must be designed in manners that leverage natural processes. Without leverage, costs will quickly become prohibitive.
Because the cornerstones are interconnected, and because diversity occurs naturally in the absence of government regulation, efforts that focus on reducing regulations that limit the diversity of natural and socioeconomic systems, promise great leverage for fixing our food systems. In the remaining discussion, I will describe powerful examples that illustrate how fewer regulations and increased liberty could restore all four cornerstones of our food systems.
Eliminating Regulations that Limit Diversity
In the book, Sustainable Agroecosystems in Climate Change Mitigation
, we included a chapter
that details how microbial diversity can be leveraged to increase food production while restoring agricultural soils. Our approach has potential to decrease input costs for growers, improve plant resistance and resilience to disease, and mitigate the impacts of climate change. As this chapter was being published, it was also becoming obsolete in that we, as authors, were suggesting a need for more research in order to leverage the microbial power driving agroecosystems. Today, agroecology experts and leaders in sustainable agriculture are demonstrating that the technology necessary to implement microbiome friendly practices that increase food production is already available
, and that the outcomes are beneficial to both growers and consumers.
Meanwhile, health research emerging from human microbiome and epigenetic (including nutrigenomic) studies indicates that improved nutrition and microbiome restoration will also have significant impacts on disease prevention.
When talking to commercial growers, I often find that the biggest factors influencing decisions to use chemical and mechanical methods that reduce the microbial biodiversity of their croplands are 1) the government and industrial regulations and incentives that determine how their crops are grown, harvested, and handled, and 2) the government funded research and education initiatives that highlight the benefits of agrochemicals without describing the impacts these chemicals have on the diversity, structure, and function of soil ecosystems.
Regulations in Health and Nutrition
Factors influencing consumer’s choices to purchase processed foods that lack important microbial, biochemical, and nutritional complexity include the belief, fostered by government mandated labeling requirements, government sponsored health education, and government sponsored school lunch programs, that such foods are both socially acceptable and nutritionally adequate.
Regulations that have been designed to eliminate pests and disease have resulted in implementation of practices that simultaneously eliminate the multitude of beneficial microbes that help crops grow, help soils retain water and nutrients, and help plants, animals, and people resist disease. Regulations that determine the kinds of environmental analyses necessary to approve chemicals for agriculture, food safety, and pharmaceutical applications impose no penalties or restrictions on chemicals that disrupt or destroy beneficial microbial species that associate with living systems, cycle nutrients, detoxify wastes, and defend against disease. As a result, these regulations provide false impressions of safety. Finally, incentives to produce high yields of a few key crops reduce both the plant and the microbial diversity associated with agricultural soils. This loss of diversity results in a loss of nutritional complexity associated with soils and the foods that are grown in them.
In human nutrition, regulations that oversee food packaging, distribution, and safety also emphasize elimination of microbes. For example, it has long been widely mandated that milk be pasteurized before being sold. Now, one might well argue that pasteurization has saved millions from food borne illnesses. Yet we also know that through pasteurization we eliminated the capacity of milk enzymes and associated microbes to synthesize nutrients. So by providing children pasteurized milk to drink, one is robbing them of the many nutrients microbes can provide. This means there is a trade off between the cost and the benefit of pasteurization. No doubt, many consumers prefer pasteurized milk. But if regulations were restricted to truth-in-labeling, consumers would be free to determine the risks they are willing to take. Some consumers would undoubtedly opt for pasteurization and reduced nutrition. Others would opt for raw milk and rely on their relationship with the dairy and their knowledge of how their milk has been handled to reduce their risk of consuming poisonous microbes. This opportunity for consumer selection would help to diversify the marketplace, and would empower consumers to take more personal responsibility for making wise food choices.
In health, as in agriculture, regulations that dictate acceptable practices for healthcare are often biased towards products that eliminate both hazardous and beneficial microbes. While these regulations clearly reduce infectious disease, they also contribute to chronic disease by altering the structure and function of the human microbiome. Technologies that reduce the abundance of infectious microbes by fostering biodiversity, so that the growth of any single species is checked, are readily available. However, these technologies do not comply with regulations, so they cannot be used in institutional settings.
Regulations that Limit Independent Thinking and Cultural Diversity
It can be humbling to consider that, as a society, we have deliberately and methodically destroyed microbial communities which serve to build our soil, clean our environment, grow our crops, and maintain our health. This sad reality begs a larger, and perhaps less politically correct question: “Really, seriously, how can we be so stupid?”
To answer this question, we must look more closely at the regulations designed to influence choices individuals make. These include regulations that influence how people learn, and requires a serious look at public education. Public education can be a powerful development tool, and can offer a ladder of opportunity to individuals who may otherwise live lives of poverty. But it can also be a tool of repression, control, and manipulation.
In industrialized society where public education is mandatory, and curriculum is standardized, entire generations of our youngest and most vulnerable individuals are exposed daily to information that promotes conformity, compliance, and dependence at the expense of innovation and creativity. These children are taught to accept and obey the rules. They are rewarded for compliance.
Curiously, when we review public education dialogs written in the nineteenth century, the dawn of the industrial age, we see that it was not long after the decline of slavery that industry began promoting public education as a way to meet new labor demands. Too often, children in public schools are taught to sit still, do as the teacher says, and prepare for a decades of employment that requires them to work for someone else. For more than a century, we have discouraged innovation and encouraged conformity by teaching our children that the “right” answer is the one in the textbook, that what our elders taught us is outdated, and that we can best contribute to society if we can qualify for a good job.
Yet when we look at leaders who have excelled in innovations that diversified our economy and improved our lives, we find they are often the rebels who questioned the status quo, followed their own instincts, and created new ways of being. It is this kind of leadership that should be fostered through education. To get from here to there, school systems must start by honoring the needs of the student rather than fulfilling the demands of the administration and the curriculum. This includes honoring the student’s need for self-determination, and for learning experiences that are relevant to the student. When students are encouraged to lead, rather than to follow, new ideas are generated, learning becomes experiential rather than prescribed, and entrepreneurial spirits emerge. Entrepreneurs are the drivers of socioeconomic diversity. By creating new opportunities in new communities, independent entrepreneurs stimulate change. By placing themselves in positions where they make decisions rather than follow directions, entrepreneurs also become self-educated.
An explosion in entrepreneurship would benefit our food system at every scale. As new businesses (small businesses in particular) develop, opportunities for local and sustainable agriculture can improve. With more business opportunities, more individuals would accept the challenges of growing and processing food in natural ways, and more food services would be available to meet growing demands for locally grown, naturally processed foods. Such businesses would offer consumers healthier choices, and help change the mindsets that accept packaged, processed, nutrient depleted foods as inevitable.
Food systems form the foundation of our economy at personal, local, national, and global scales. A process of diversification catalyzed by reduced regulation, small scale entreprenership, and restoration of biodiversity can:
1) restore microbiomes to the agricultural, environmental, and health care systems that, together with diversity, define our food systems. Doing so will increase crop yields, restore natural resources like clean air and water, and improve human health and nutrition.
2) shift public mindsets from conformity, compliance, and dependence to leadership, innovation, and independent entrepreneurship. Doing so will ignite a renaissance of innovation and an explosion of small businesses, including small businesses in sustainable agriculture, food services, and health.
This combined biological and economic diversification would rebuild food systems ethically, in an organic fashion that respects both people and the planet. The best way to catalyze such diversification would be to reduce those government regulations that restrict life and liberty. These include regulations that restrict how our food is grown, how our children learn, and how our sick are tended to, and how our income is spent. By allowing individuals the opportunity to make their own judgments about the foods they eat, the doctors they seek, and the schools they study in, we increase local access to local food, natural healthcare, and true, experiential learning opportunities that meet the needs of diverse populations.