Taking Stock And Looking Forward: Food System Overhaul | Civil Eats

Taking Stock And Looking Forward: Food System Overhaul

Shot of two young women working on a farm

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As 2021 comes to an end, we take stock of another momentous year that marked massive upheavals in the food system and across society. From the attempted insurrection on January 6 to ongoing climate-driven crises, we are living through unprecedented times that require big ideas and bold action.

Throughout the year, Civil Eats has continued to report on the critical impacts of climate change, the reverberation of the pandemic on the food system, including food access and security, the impacts of industrial agriculture, the plight of essential workers, and more. Much of our reporting is driven by our specific solutions-focused lens, uplifting the promising outcomes and the inspiring leaders that are laying out a path toward a more just, equitable, and healthy food system.

To lead us into 2022, we asked some of the leading thinkers and doers working on the frontlines of food, justice, and climate to share their thoughts with us about the most pressing issues, what they’ll be working toward in the new year, and what propels them to keep going. We will be featuring their responses over the next several days and hope their wisdom leaves you with much food for thought for the year ahead.

Today, we hear from Austin Frerick, Ruth Reichl, and Ricardo Salvador about what corporate consolidation means for food and the economy, how workers are taking charge of their own safety, and why we need to reimagine and rewild how the U.S. does agriculture.

Austin Frerick, Deputy Director, Thurman Arnold Project at Yale University

What’s one issue that you wish more people understood?

I would say the corporate capture of the land grant universities in America is truly underappreciated and underreported. The research they do really shapes the conversations we’re having; even the way we’re talking about climate change and agriculture is being shaped by corporate-financed research. They’re setting the table and we are just responding to the table set. And that really bothers me.

We had someone do a literature review for the conference we’re planning on retail grocery stores in March. And you literally have scholars saying, “This monopoly thing is actually good for consumers,” and then you realize, “Oh, those scholars live on the dole of Walmart.” They’ll brag about it on their website.

Public universities should be researching: How do we help farmers and workers? How do we improve the local economies? But what I’ve seen happen is, as we decrease our state support for them, corporate dollars are filling that void. And these dollars come with strings.

It’s one thing when we want to improve the grain silo technology and have a partner who is a silo manufacturer. It’s another when literature is being created to justify greenwashing for climate change, or stuff that’s actually anti-climate change is being framed as pro-climate change because of this corporate investment at these public universities.

What are you hopeful for?

As for 2022, I am hopeful that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), under the new direction of Chair Lina Khan, will begin meaningful reforms in American food and ag markets after decades of neglect by both the FTC and USDA. And on a personal note, I’m really hopeful (and excited) about the new scholarship we’re producing with the grocery store conference.

Can you tell us more about those things?

This summer Biden announced all these monopoly initiatives. One of them was requiring the USDA to write a report on competition issues in grocery stores. The USDA realized there’s not a lot of literature on this. I got a grant to put on an academic conference to generate literature. And to me it’s hopeful.

We’ve gotten a lot of incredible scholarship from young people who want to look at, for example, what does it mean when SNAP online is mostly Amazon and Walmart? Or what does it mean when Amazon Go is becoming popular?

In these dark times, it’s cool to see people caring and willing to tackle these important subjects. At the same time, people don’t have a lot of hope for USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. But we’re really pushing solutions in this conference, so we’re trying to generate other avenues to solve these problems. Is there something Khan can do to address some of these issues?

Khan’s appointment is a big deal—I can’t say that enough. She’s a former journalist. I met her five years ago because she wrote an article on chicken monopolies. It was really good; she tore into Vilsack for failing to do anything at the time. And now she’s FTC chair—that is incredible.

She made her name because she wrote an academic paper challenging the orthodoxy of modern antitrust enforcement in America, focused on how Amazon is a monopoly. And you had the Chamber of Commerce, two weeks later, going after her. But her appointment represents an intellectual change in how we view monopoly in America. And you’re seeing the old guard just lose it. But she has an incredibly good team around her. Remember that statue near Wall Street of the young girl standing up to the bull? She is that.

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Ruth Reichl, author, chef, editor of La Briffe newsletter

What were the biggest challenges you saw in the food system in 2021?

I spent the last year and a half working on a documentary about the food system and what COVID has revealed. My overall take is that we had an extraordinary opportunity and we didn’t take it. I really did think that we would come out of it and see the [true] costs of the fact that we’ve privileged efficiency over everything else, what the dangers of that were.

In the middle of the pandemic, everybody was saying, “Well, it’s really clear, we need local food hubs. We really need to set up antitrust cases and go after the biggest monopolizers in the food system. We really need to think about setting up [more] local meat processing plants, [more] places where local farmers can store, freeze, and process food.”

It became so obvious where the big problems in the system were. In the restaurant business, we all looked at it and thought, “Wow, this business is exploitative. It’s a bad business model. It’s ridiculous that restaurants didn’t have more than a week before they were out of money. Clearly, we need to rethink the model.”

And then it was over and everybody went back to business as usual. And it’s kind of depressing.

How many times are we going to have to go through this before we really do understand that we have a serious problem? We can’t feed ourselves and we could, so easily, just by changing who we support and how we support them.

Are there any bright spots that you see?

The bright spot is in racial justice. This is the first time that [many] Americans have really understood that Black farmers have been robbed for the last hundred years. [That story] flew under the radar and now it isn’t anymore.

There’s been a real understanding that people of color need to be growing their own food. That’s a really positive thing. And we’re seeing it change right before our eyes. We’re seeing a real push to figure out ways to support Black farmers. It’s too little, too late—but at least it’s happening.

And the documentary you’re working on?

They’re editing it now. We started out basically trying to bear witness to what was happening during COVID. I felt strongly that this was going to be a change point. I talked to 12 chefs on a weekly basis and farmers and ranchers and fishermen and policy people across the country for 14 months. It was hundreds of hours of [interviews]. And in the end, it turned out to be much less about what COVID wrought and much more about what our food system is and what we have to do to change it.

Is there anything else that gives you some hope for 2022?

I’ve been writing about food for 50 years and we have never had a more engaged public than we do now. What gives me hope is young people. I really think this is the first generation that truly does understand that their food choices, and their food activism, can make a difference. I’m very encouraged by where young people stand on all of this and how angry they are about climate change and the fact that old people won’t do anything about it.

I think we’re in a bad patch right now, but I’m really hopeful that this young generation isn’t going to put up with it. There’s a lot of energy in this movement. People understand that we can’t sit around very much longer. And that does really give me hope. So, while in the short term I’m not optimistic, in the long term I am.

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Ricardo Salvador, Director, Food & Environment Program, Union of Concerned Scientists

What are some of the big issues in 2022 you’ll be working on?

There’s always what’s realistic and politically feasible, and what should be happening. I’m in the second category. Next year is about preparing for the farm bill and I don’t see any reason why the public should be investing in commodity agriculture. It doesn’t conform to what the USDA itself recommends in its Dietary Guidelines, it creates all kinds of nutritional and environmental havoc, and only a small number of farmers actually experience a net financial benefit.

We have an urgent need to change the way that land is used, to respond to and mitigate climate change. There is no way that you can modify the present row crop-dominated commodity system into one that makes substantive contributions toward climate change. Everything that people talk about, such as the gradual adoption of cover crops and other [environmentally] friendly practices, are basically just yielding the edge. As long as we are in a monocrop system with heavy dependence on fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides, we’re not really going to be doing much for carbon storage in the soil.

What we need is perennial cover [i.e., grass, shrubs, and trees], to rewild a lot of that land, and more buffers to keep water clean. And, whereas in the past, that argument might have sounded like taking valuable land out of production, now we can all see that it’s putting land into valuable carbon sequestration for the long term, which is what we all want.

We should be producing less of the stuff that makes us sick. To the extent that there’s public-sector participation in agriculture, it should be in support of only those crops and foodstuffs that conform to the Dietary Guidelines for all Americans, [which recommends that half of all meals be comprised of fruits and vegetables]. If we do that, it would reorder the industrial agricultural system and there would be health benefits, environmental benefits, and benefits for climate change. That’s the dream.

No one in industrial agriculture will agree to any of that, of course. But the majority of people that benefit from commodity payments are actually very large-scale farms, many of whom don’t need subsidy payments to survive. And that’s a very small number of farmers. To the extent that farmers want to cooperate with a genuine climate change agenda, then it makes sense that we should be supporting them in making the transition. I don’t think that we should commit to payments in perpetuity because that get us into the moral hazard of essentially paying people to do the right thing. But there needs to be a transition period during which there is a political case for subsidies.

What’s making you feel hopeful right now?

This administration, and specifically the folks at the USDA, are a completely different breed than we’ve worked with in the past. On almost every issue that we bring to the USDA—ranging from nutrition to racial equity to local foods and things like waivers for line speeds at meatpacking plants—these folks agree with us, so far. And they are doing everything possible to send money outside of their usual farm bill authority—primarily money that they got from the American Rescue Plan—toward [under-supported] communities than they’ve [done] in the past. They’re taking leadership in debt relief for farmers of color, including trying to figure out a legislative strategy to overcome the litigation that claims that it is discriminatory against white farmers. It’s a completely different USDA and that gives me great hope. We’re able to take advantage of getting resources to communities and issues that previously were not on their radar, and definitely not priorities for any generation of USDA that I’ve ever worked with.

What do you wish everybody knew or understood better about your work?

The big thing that I wish all of us were aware of is that we have created a system that—by its very design—is extractive and exploitative of people. And even though we know better, we’re applying 21st-century technologies to 16th- and 17th-century mentalities about how to conduct agriculture, including exploiting people, concentrating wealth, and denuding and polluting the environment.

Even the thing people claim has been the greatest success—productivity—is false, because it’s coming with huge trade-offs—the loss of soil, the pollution of drinking water, and the emission of greenhouse gases that are essentially burning up the planet. The entire system needs to be rethought, including what the purpose is, and who should benefit. That’s a huge conversation, because it means you have to undo a lot of premises that have to do with the creation story of the country. And that’s the work that we’re in the middle of.

Since 2009, the Civil Eats editorial team has published award-winning and groundbreaking news and commentary about the American food system, and worked to make complicated, underreported stories—on climate change, the environment, social justice, animal welfare, policy, health, nutrition, and the farm bill— more accessible to a mainstream audience. Read more >

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