Fixing Our Food Systems

What is a food system?

Food systems, at the most basic level, include the spectrum of interactions between humanity and the

Food systems are defined by four cornerstones.

environment we live in.  Healthy food systems are economically and nutritionally secure food systems.  They ensure access to safe, healthy, and nutritious food for all people, and they serve as the foundation to the remaining economy.   When food systems thrive, so do the economies they support.  People from all walks of life prosper.  However, when food systems crumble, the economies they support become unstable.   Disparities between rich and poor increase, and in the worst case scenario, civilizations collapse.

Because most people reading this article will have neither grown food for themselves nor experienced lasting hunger, and because contemporary food systems 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.  Nutritional deficiencies manifest gradually as various forms of disease, and contribute to rising health care costs.  But when health care systems focus on medical cures rather than nutritional causes, it is easy to overlook the role food systems play in health.
As we look for solutions to rising health care costs, general inflation, and weakened economies, it is worth considering the role that food systems can play in addressing these problems.  Frankly, without a functional food system, health care costs will cripple our economy. Let’s take a moment to look at components that define functional food systems.
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.  Environment represents the entire natural resource base, including land, soil, air, and water, that is necessary for growing food and cycling nutrients.
  2. 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 an indicator of freedom within a society, because people and biota both thrive in societies where life and liberty are valued.
  3.  Agriculture in this context, includes all the human interventions that go into the growing, gathering, processing, and distribution of food for human consumption.
  4.  Health refers to the energetic state of the system, and may include human, environmental, nutritional, or even economic health.  A healthy system is dynamic and mobile.  A sick or dead system is static.

    An economy is only as sustainable as the food system it is built upon.

    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 are 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 both businesses and individuals.  While these solutions may be well-intened,  regulations made at the wrong level of government often merely confound the problem.  Prescribed “solutions” repeatedly fail simply because one-size-fits-all policies don’t align well with the natural complexity and diversity that define health food systems.   Regulations limit the diversity that empowers the system to respond to change.  Since each environment differs, each set of local needs (and potential solutions) differ.  This is why government solutions should be limited to actions that directly protect life and liberty.  Education, rather than legislation, should be the goal of most government efforts.
     One example of a government effort that is indended to address food security needs, but fails to do so involves the United States Department of Agriculture’s efforts to sequence the wheat genome and the genome of the wheat stem rust pathogen, while distributing new wheat germplasm.   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!  Growing numbers of taxpayers are seeking gluten free alternatives.  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 that makes many of these taxpayers sick.  This is not to suggest that restrictions be placed on wheat production.  Wheat provides good 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 many possible examples illustrating why overarching government programs can lead to food insecurity.

    So How Do We Fix It?

     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 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 simply become prohibitive.
     Because the cornerstones are interconnected, and because diversity occurs naturally in a liberated system, efforts that focus on reducing regulations, educating the public, and promoting free markets (including small scale and home based enterprises) promise great leverage for fixing our food systems.  In the remaining discussion, I will describe powerful examples that illustrate how fewer regulations and increased diversity 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 somewhat 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 affordable, and that the outcomes are beneficial to both growers and consumers.  More research is not 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 growers, food processors, and health care providers to adopt agricultural, dietary, and health care practices that reduce the diversity and abundance of beneficial microbes in our soils and our selves. This can be accomplished through education and outreach efforts.
    Health research emerging from human microbiome and epigenetic (including nutrigenomic) studies indicates that improved nutrition and microbiome restoration will also have significant impacts on both 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, regulations such as those outlined below often 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) the government and industrial regulations and incentives that influence 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 negative 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 beliefs, 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 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 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 decide whether they prefer the risk of milk-borne pathogens over the risk of a depleted microbiome.   No doubt, some consumers would undoubtedly opt for pasteurization and risk the 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 in their milk.   This opportunity for consumer selection would help to diversify the marketplace (great for the economy) , 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 more natural technologies, often produced by small businesses that lack research facilities, do not comply with regulations, so they cannot always 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 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 that helps them pass the standardized test, 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.  In doing so, they not only created jobs for those who seek them, but they also created 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.  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, biological, and health care systems that 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 the conformity, compliance, and dependence on others to the leadership, innovation, and entrepreneurship that reduces burdens on taxpayers and governments. 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 two pronged approach of 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 while promoting educational efforts that empower people to make decisions based, not only on what the rules say, but on what their environment and their community demands in order to survive.  Fewer 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 will allow more people the freedom to choose holistic approaches to self care which are more individualized, and therefore more effective than the cookie cutter approaches set forth by policy.  As more individuals are given the opportunity to make their own judgments about the foods they eat, the doctors they seek, and the topics they study, local access to safe, nutritious, and affordable food, natural healthcare, and true learning opportunities will increase, and our food systems will repair themselves.