We Disrupted the Energy System—Let’s Tackle the Food System, Too

Our successes in cleaning up a dirty energy system can guide efforts to make our food system more sustainable.

wind farm
Our successes in cleaning up a dirty energy system can guide efforts to make our food system more sustainable. (Chris Goldberg/Flickr)

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It was just a few decades ago that people started to see the breadth and depth of the flaws in our fossil fuel-based energy system. On its surface, fossil fuel energy seemed cheap and convenient; underneath, it was dirty, damaging to the climate and adept at making people sick. But because the system was backed by an entrenched, wealthy and politically powerful industry, change seemed impossible.

Sound familiar? It’s a lot like what we’re seeing in our industrial food system today. Can we really reform this entrenched structure and change the way America feeds itself? Yes we can, and we can look to our successes with energy as a guide.

I don’t mean to suggest that our work on energy is done—far from it—but we have taken great strides toward making our energy system cleaner and more sustainable. Government efficiency standards played a big role in spurring companies to create better products, from fuel-sipping cars to energy-saving light bulbs and appliances. Today, our cars go twice as far on a gallon of gas and refrigerators use 75 percent less energy than they did 30 years ago. Energy efficiency standards have reduced pollution and saved consumers billions of dollars over the past few decades.

What if food producers had similar incentives to use less land, water, chemicals and energy? Some farmers are already embracing efficient techniques, such as using variable irrigation to conserve water and crop rotation and cover cropping to reduce pesticide and fertilizer use. But without strong policies in place to encourage their spread, these strategies are only being used on a small scale.

Efficiency can cut down on waste at home, too. Just like running the dishwasher at night can save energy, checking the fridge and pantry before going to the store and shopping with a meal plan in mind can help save food. Simple strategies like these helped reduce household food waste in the U.K. by 21 percent in five years. American families each throw away as much as $1,500 worth of food every year, so there’s plenty of room to save not just food, but all the energy, water and other resources that go into producing it.

Systemic change, however, requires more than individual action from farmers and consumers. One person who chooses to bike to work or buy local food sends a signal. But when you build bike lanes or serve local food in school cafeterias, you start to facilitate large-scale change. Infrastructure and policy changes can ramp up the development of clean, sustainable food.

Temporary federal tax credits for renewable energy production have helped spur the growth of wind and solar energy, and in some places, they are now cost-competitive with coal. Imagine if the federal government were to incentivize clean food rather than chemical use and GMOs. Sustainable practices could sprout like solar panels in the desert.

Most supermarkets and big box stores purchase food in bulk from remote industrial operations, leaving small, local farms offering cleaner food without much of a market. Developing regional food networks, as well as better shipping and handling infrastructure, would help make sustainably produced food available to more people.

Government subsidies also play a role in maintaining the current paradigm. Fossil fuels have enjoyed government support for more than a century, and are now pulling in about $20 billion in subsidies every year. Federal food policies similarly encourage the industrial production of corn, wheat and soy. According to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group, corn alone benefited from $94 billion in subsidies from 1995 to 2014. Most of this corn is used as animal feed in factory farms or to make ethanol and high fructose corn syrup. In comparison, funding in the current farm bill for fruits and vegetables and organic initiatives totals about $100 million a year.

There’s one important tool, however, that the food movement lacks: the power of environmental safeguards. The agriculture industry, more often than not, has avoided being held to the requirements of federal environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act. That’s why, in addition to defending communities afflicted by pollution from agriculture, Earthjustice advocates in court for greater transparency in our food system and necessary changes to government rules and budgets and local supply chains. When agriculture has to follow the same laws as other polluting industries and take full responsibility for its impacts, real reform can begin.  

As they are in the energy sector, laws and policies can be extremely powerful tools to shape the agriculture industry and hold it accountable. When advocates focused more on challenging the dirty energy system and supporting clean energy, they had to turn to the energy laws that regulated the field. These were new to them, but are now potent tools for change. So, too, with agriculture—we need to look to the food and farming laws that define the system and find ways to use them to make our food and farming safer and healthier. 

The challenges of cleaning up our food system are not insignificant. But nor are they insurmountable. Through improved efficiency, better infrastructure and policies that support cleaner alternatives, we can make an impact. We’ve used these strategies to improve our energy system. A healthier, more sustainable food system is also within our reach.

Fertile Grounds is a blog series that examines the challenges and opportunities in ensuring access to healthy, sustainable and affordable food for all. We talk about the entire lifecycle of food—from seed selection and planting to consumption and disposal—because there is potential for improvement throughout. We’re informed by the expertise of our many clients and allies and by Earthjustice’s years of work to ban harmful pesticides, encourage sustainable farming methods, reduce pollution, support farmworker justice and promote a healthy relationship between farmers and communities.

Based in New York, Peter Lehner (@p_lehner) directs Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food & Farming Program, developing litigation, administrative, and legislative strategies to promote a more just and environmentally sound agricultural system and to reduce health, environmental, and climate harms from production of our food.

Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food and Farming program aims to make our nation’s food system safer and more climate friendly.