Restoring the Cornerstones of Healthy Food Systems

What is a healthy food system?

Food systems are made up of complex webs of interactions that provide access to food. Image shows a model of healthy food systems based on 4 cornerstones of a clean environment, regenerative agriculture, nutritional health, and freedom.Healthy food systems are economically and nutritionally secure.  Ideally, a healthy food system provides access to safe, healthy, and nutritious food for everyone. 

Because healthy food systems are essential to humanity itself, they also form the very foundation of every economy.   When food systems thrive, people from all walks of life prosper.

However, when food systems crumble, the economies they support become unstable.   Disparities between rich and poor increase.  Civilizations start to collapse.

Because contemporary food systems separate people from the environment and make cheap calories readily available, many of us have simply learned to ignore the role food systems play as the central foundation and the driving force of our economy.
When cheap empty calories from the bulk of our food, nutritional deficiencies manifest gradually as various forms of disease.  These diseases contribute to rising health care costs. Since health care systems focus on medical cures rather than nutritional causes, victims of disease may never even associate their sickness with the quality of food they eat each day.
As we look for solutions to rising health care costs, general inflation, and weakened economies, it is worth considering the role that food systems play in addressing these problems.  Frankly, without a functional food system, health care costs will cripple our economy.
A food system can be illustrated 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:
  1. Clean Environment- a functional ecosystem, including the land, soil, air, water, and biodiversity and other natural resources that are necessary for growing food and cycling nutrients.
  2.  Regenerative Agriculture- growing, gathering, processing, and distributing food in manners that replenish natural resources and provide consumers with nutrient dense whole foods.
  3. Nutritional Health-in the broadest sense, this refers to the cycling of nutrients needed to maintain a healthy, energetic state.  When nutritional health is present, chronic and infectious disease are rare, healthcare costs are low, and people are productive.   Plants, animals, crops, and livestock are also productive.
  4. Freedom –this is the quality of having enough flexibility and diversity within the system to maintain access to food and essential resources. Diversity (including biodiversity, cultural diversity, and economic diversity) is a key indicator of this freedom.  Freedom can be promoted through free trade and quality education that focuses on student (rather than administrative) needs. 

Symptoms and Consequences of a Damaged Food System

                As with any kind of preventive health, learning to identify warning signs of a damaged food system is critical for maintaining or restoring good health.   Since healthy food systems are fundamental to every other kind of health, these early warning signs are worth recognizing.
1. Decreased or decreasing environmental quality.  As clean air and water, biodiversity, and natural resources become scarce, the capacity to grow food declines.
2. Inflated prices, including food prices (These are directly related to scarcity of natural resources, because inflation always indicates increased demand and/or diminished supply).
3. Decreased nutritional quality of diets.
4. Increased incidence of chronic and/or infectious disease.
5. Decreased quality and/or availability of farms, farmers, and farmland.
6. Decreased awareness of agriculture’s importance to our health and prosperity.
7. Economic decline.
7. Civil unrest.
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.

Many Local Food Systems Need Serious Repair

Around the country and around the world local food systems are suffering from food scarcity and poor food quality.  Since food systems form the foundation of every economy, these declines have serious consequences for the health, prosperity, and sustainability of every community.

Excessive Regulation Contributes to Food System Failure

Governments often respond to these symptoms with overarching “solutions” that restrict the behaviors of both businesses and individuals.  While these solutions may be well-intended,  regulations made too far beyond the local level/scale of government can merely confound the problem.   “Solutions” offered through aid and stimulus packages fail again and again simply because one-size-fits-all policies don’t align well with the complex local dynamics of healthy food systems.   Instead, such regulations limit both the cultural and biological diversity that enables food systems to respond to change.

Constant change in the local climate, environment, and economy is both natural and necessary to the health of any local community.  When government controls become excessive, change is limited, and local economies fold.  When government actions are limited to protecting its citizens from direct infractions on life, liberty, and private property rights, local innovations can resolve disparities and build industries that keep families and communities healthy, well-fed, and gainfully employed.

So How Do We Fix Damaged Food Systems?

 First, we need to shift our economic focus from the intermediate levels of commerce and industry to the foundational cornerstones of health, environment, agriculture, and freedom
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 simply become prohibitive.
 Because the cornerstones are interconnected, and because freedom to live as we please so long as we don’t hurt others promotes diversity critical to the long-term success of any dynamic system, efforts that focus on regenerating natural processes, reducing regulations, educating the public, and promoting free markets promise great leverage for fixing our food systems.  In the remaining discussion, I will describe powerful examples that illustrate how diversity and deregulation could restore all four cornerstones of our food systems.

Reduce Regulations that Limit Diversity

In the book, Sustainable Agroecosystems in Climate Change Mitigationchapter 10 details how microbial diversity can be leveraged to increase food production while restoring agricultural soils.  This powerful approach, which has already been adopted by many regenerative farmers, has the potential to decrease input costs for growers, improve plant resistance and resilience to disease, and mitigate the impacts of climate change.   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 affordable. Such practices are beneficial to both growers and consumers.  In fact, it is now safe to say that more research is not really needed to increase food production.   What is needed is increased understanding of benefits of microbially driven agriculture to growers and consumers, and elimination of regulations that encourage or even force growers, food processors, and health care providers to implement practices that reduce the diversity and abundance of beneficial microbes in our soils, our diets, and our bodies. This can be accomplished through education and outreach efforts.
Data emerging from human microbiome and epigenetic (including nutritional and nutrigenomic) studies indicate that improved nutrition, reduced exposure to toxins, and microbiome restoration will also have significant impacts on environmental health and disease prevention. Since health care costs are currently debilitating our economy, microbiome stewardship from the soil to the gut can have dramatic impacts on both health and prosperity.
Unfortunately, current regulations in many industries encourage support efforts that reduce beneficial microbes in our food system.

Agricultural regulations 

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) regulations and incentives that influence how  crops are grown, harvested, and handled, and 2) government funding for research and education initiatives that highlight the benefits of agrochemicals without fully describing the negative impacts these chemicals have on the diversity, structure, and function of soil ecosystems.

 

Health regulations 

Beliefs influencing consumer preferences for processed foods that lack microbial, biochemical, and nutritional complexity;  or for choose primary health care routines that damage cellular pathways and microbiome integrity are supported by government-mandated labeling requirements, government-sponsored healthcare systems, and government-supported school lunch programs.   With so much government support, it becomes easy for many to believe that the food and medicine choices they are making represent the best choices available for their condition.  Too often, the better options are simply invisible.
Regulations that have been designed to eliminate pests and disease in crops, livestock and people have led to the implementation of practices that simultaneously eliminate the multitude of nutrients, beneficial microbes and active enzymes in food crops that help people resist disease.  These regulations increase disease (and health care costs) by reducing human nutrition.
 Regulations that determine the kinds of environmental analyses necessary to approve chemicals for agriculture, food safety, and pharmaceutical applications impose no real penalties or restrictions on chemicals that disrupt or destroy beneficial microbes associated with living systems or with the food we consume.  Such microbes are important because they cycle nutrients, detoxify wastes, and defend against disease.
Because they fail to acknowledge the loss of beneficial microbes or nutrients, most food safety regulations provide only 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, while providing an unfair economic advantage to those growers producing crops in the least natural, least sustainable manner.
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 can reduce infectious disease, they also  contribute to chronic disease by altering the structure and function of the human microbiome.  Deregulating health care to allow natural and alternative care providers to play a larger role in preventive care would help consumers optimize their own disease risks.

Economic regulations

                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.   Really, seriously, how can we be doing this to ourselves?
                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.  This includes re-examining mainstream approaches to education.   Afterall, education that works is a powerful development tool.  It offers ladders of opportunity to those who might otherwise live in poverty.  But when public education fails, it becomes a tool of repression, control, and manipulation.  Failed education actually creates the poverty it seeks to eliminate.  Sadly, education fails too often.
                In a society where public education is mandatory and curriculum is standardized, entire generations of our youngest and most vulnerable receive information daily 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.
Too often, children in public schools are taught to sit still, do as the teacher says, and prepare for 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 that helps them pass the test and qualify for the job.
                Yet when we look at leaders who excel in innovations that diversify our economy and improve our lives, we find they are often the rebels who questioned the status quo, followed their own instincts, and created new ways of being.  In doing so, they not only created jobs for those who seek them, but they also launched new industries.  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 relevant learning experiences.  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. 
                  Rather than using public schools to build a labor force among students who are forced to attend, we should be using public education to build entrepreneurial skills among students who choose to learn.  Graduates of such schools would be innovators.  They would create new opportunities and stimulate change.  By placing themselves in positions where make decisions rather than follow directions, students become life-long learners.  They also become entrepreneurs.
                An explosion in entrepreneurship could 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.

Biodiversity in a healthy food system

Regenerative agricultural practices that restore ecosystem services by promoting biodiversity and environmentally sound practices can help restore the entire food system foundations.  This is because regenerative practices promote clean environments and healthy economies.  Regenerative methods also support both large and small agriculture.   Regenerative methods are safer for farm labor, and well suited to local markets.  Because regenerative methods require fewer amendments, they can lower production costs and (where available) reap carbon credits.  This makes regenerative farming attractive to large corporate farmers as well.

Free trade in a healthy food system

This image illustrates the ideal relationship between food systems, free trade, and government. A small government sits on top of a large free trade system that sits above an even larger food system.

Trade should never exceed the carrying capacity of the foundation. Government should only be as large as is necessary to ensure that trade is conducted “freely,” to benefit of both parties while regenerating the food system.

Although carbon credits and other stimulus packages are thought to promote sustainability, the most regenerative systems will be based on free trade in consumer driven markets.

The relationship between a food system, the economy at large, and the governments that regulate economies can be illustrated with a pyramid that places the food system at the foundation.  Commerce systems, including industries like transportation, communication, and manufacturing are in direct contact with the food system because they rely on the food system for human and natural resources that support their business industry.  For this reason, in an ideal free trade society, commerce that emphasizes restoration and regeneration will always be the most productive.   Unfortunately, such “free trade” economies are scarce.   This is because most governments impose regulations that bind the invisible hand guiding free markets, and direct the flow of goods and services towards those with the most political influence. Since both markets and ecosystems are in constant flux, these relatively permanent regulations simply cannot work quickly enough to guide markets sustainably.

The governments most able to create sustainable healthy food systems will be those that limit their size and scope to enforcement of free trade. Rather than controlling prices, salaries, workforce development (ie: education), and quality of products traded between consumers from producers, these governments would work to ensure truth in labeling, limit price-fixing, and otherwise work to ensure that buyers and sellers are on equal playing fields.

Conclusions

Food systems form the foundation of our economy at personal, local, national, and global scales.   A process of diversification catalyzed by deregulation, appropriate education, free enterprise, and restoration of biodiversity would simultaneously:
1) restore microbiomes to the agricultural, environmental, biological, and health care systems that define our food systems.  This can be accomplished with regenerative agricultural practices.
2) empower free markets  by liberating education systems from the conformity, compliance, and dependence promoted by government overreach while fostering entrepreneurship  with true free market policies.   The combination of liberated citizens and liberated local markets would ignite the renaissance of small businesses that would support healthy food systems.
                This two-pronged approach of biological (microbiome based) and economic (people-based) diversification would rebuild food systems ethically and organically while restoring human and environmental health.

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