Americans are more obese than ever, our current agriculture system is dependent on oil and other limited resources, our waterways and air are polluted by factory-like farming operations, and still opponents try to push sustainable agriculture to the margins. But change is possible, as Jill Richardson writes in her new book, Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It, which breaks down many of the issues facing the food system and provides approximately 70 pages of solutions.
The book first sets out to explain the way our agriculture system devolved from sustainable to unsustainable. “In the end, the numerous problems in our food system — pollution, human rights abuses, poor food safety, the breakdown of rural communities, the decline in our health — are hardly random,” she writes. “Instead, they stem from a common thread of industrialization, which occurred primarily over the second half of the twentieth century.”
The logical conclusion for Richardson, then, is that sustainable agriculture is the only way forward. In the next chapter, she details the reasons why sustainable agriculture works — beginning with the inherent consideration it provides to the common good, by maintaining the land, the air, and other species for future generations. She spends time talking about the science of building fertile soil, a necessary part of the practice of sustainable agriculture, as well as the importance of biodiversity, which creates stability in the populations of neighboring plants and organisms. She makes it clear that these considerations are being left out of current conventional agriculture, which purports that we can indefinitely add fertilizer to fields instead of building topsoil (we can’t; a crucial element, phosphorus, which can be maintained in topsoil, is now most often being irrevocably washed away every growing season through bad agricultural practices). Building up soil is scientific, involving laboratory samples and methodology, not some turn back to the past, Richardson asserts. This method also saves the farmer money while promoting the environment; and without doing such, we face a future inability to feed ourselves.
So what then is standing in the way of implementation of sustainable practices? Here, it seems, most often the barriers to building a sustainable food system come down to the political will to change. Richardson goes into detail about the barriers on the micro level, in restaurants and school cafeterias, for example. But most interesting are the barriers on the farm, and how excessive regulation on the macro level (like the pending National Animal Identification System (NAIS)), and incentives that promote industrial agricultural practices over sustainable, affect farmers’ will and ability to change. But the greatest barrier of all, she writes, may be the lack of recognition on the part of the government that sustainable agriculture practices are superior to industrial agriculture, and for that to change, we need public outcry.
Richardson focuses the final third of her book on the feasible, incremental solutions that will begin to stem the tide of industrial agriculture and favor improved, more sustainable practices. She starts with big ideas, like protecting children, food safety, human and animal rights and the value of labeling, then zeros in on the policy initiatives and problems facing improvements in those areas.
Food safety, for example, is the cause that has been getting a lot of focus in Washington. Here Richardson goes into detail about some of the major issues facing food safety, like antibiotic resistance, microbial contamination, and mercury in fish, and gives specific recommendations for change that can be achieved right now. For mercury in fish, for example, she calls on the government to change its lax warnings to reflect more accurate information about what is safe, then to place labels and warnings where consumers are likely to see them, and finally to significantly curb mercury pollution. She links the problems in keeping our food safe nationally primarily to the “piecemeal” way in which our food safety system has been set up. In addition, the USDA’s conflict of interest in simultaneously being charged with promoting and regulating industry (usually more of the former than the latter), and a chronically under-funded FDA (the body charged with making sure our food is safe) leaves Richardson wondering if all those campaign contributions from Big Ag and Big Pharma are keeping regulation in check.
Like a handbook for the sustainable advocate in training, Recipe for America feels like a one-on-one session with a pro in the trenches. It gives the reader the tools they need to be up-to-date on the state of the food movement, the pending legislation and state of the political process as it pertains to food. So pick up a copy, and join the ranks. The good food movement needs YOU!
[Hungry for more? Read Jill Richardson’s blog, La Vida Locavore]