The food system of the United States has received attention in recent years for its negative environmental impacts. While the increasing conversation and mobility towards a sustainable and just food system has had many positive impacts across the country, it has also occasionally devolved into a blame game between urban and rural (or agriculture and non-agriculture) environments. There are environmental impacts generated both by populations living within the agricultural sector and those living outside of it. In urban centers we see increasing instances of food deserts as well as an increasing disconnect with the food system as a whole. In the agricultural sector we face the continuing problems of resource consumption and depletion, environmental contamination from pesticides and other forms of pollution, as well as increasing incidences of factory and monocultural farming. While these problems may be unique to their respective sectors, they are by no means disconnected. This paper discusses the need for a comprehensive understanding of the food systems in America, and a joint effort between agricultural and non agricultural sectors to work towards just and sustainable food systems.
This paper is not attempting to offer solutions to the various problems facing America’s food systems, although it will point out solutions that have been offered by other experts within the field. Instead, it is working to show the ways in which the problems facing our food systems are not rural vs. urban or us vs. them. These problems are far too big, and far too connected, to be successfully combated with such ideologies. This paper is working to reframe the conversation around food systems in America, and to suggest that interconnected problems demand interconnected solutions.
Food systems are incredibly complex, necessarily different in every location to accommodate their given environment. Despite these complexities, it is possible to identify four key aspects of every food system:
While there can be other elements in food systems (processing or marketing for example), these four will be the focus of this paper as they are the four that can be most commonly identified within every food system–urban or rural.
Any program creating a just and sustainable food system must consider all four elements of the food system, as well as any additional elements introduced by their specific environment. Because each element of the food system is irrevocably intertwined with the others, food systems necessite a coordinated attempt from actors within each individual element in order to change the system. It is necessary not only to recognize the location of the problem itself, but to acknowledge the ways in which it is situated within the system as a whole.
Urban Food Systems
The first problem addressed by this paper is located within the distribution element. Food deserts, as they have been popularly named, refer to areas where residents have little to no easy access to grocery stores close to their homes. A result of having no grocery store close to home often means limited availability of healthy food options, especially fruits and vegetables.
As can be seen in the map below, these food deserts are largely located in the most densely populated portions of America while more rural states tend to have fewer cases. However, the problem is more than an urban or rural divide. Food deserts most often impact communities of color and low-income communities. Wealthier neighborhoods have three times the number of of supermarkets as poor neighborhoods, and white neighborhoods have four times as many supermarkets as black neighborhoods. Additionally, stores in black neighborhoods have a significantly smaller and less healthy selection than those in white neighborhoods (Morland, et al., 2002).
Food deserts affect the environment in multiple ways. The first is the increased need for individual transportation to the grocery store when there is not one within walking distance of neighborhoods. Every individual in that neighborhood must now find a way to get to the grocery store. In addition to the transportation affects, individuals in food deserts often decide to do most of their shopping at other stores that often have much smaller selections. They most often end up purchasing highly processed and packaged food that is harmful not only to health, but to the environment both through production and disposal. A reduction of the number of food deserts in America would provide substantial benefit to the health of both the neighborhoods and the people within them.
Urbanization is defined as the increasing share of a country’s population living within urban areas, and thus a declining share of the population living within rural areas. Because it is defined as an increasing share, rather than increasing number, urbanization specifically measures the rate of population migrating from rural sectors into urban sectors.
Urbanization cannot be exclusively classified as an environmental problem in America, as many of the effects of urbanization are in fact have a positive effect on the environment. By concentrating our population, we can concentrate some of the impact that we have on the land around us. We don’t have to pave over as much of the land to create roads, or run phone lines to as many remote locations when our population is more concentrated around urban centers. However, the recent upswing in urbanization in America has had overwhelmingly negative effects on the environmental impacts of food systems.
According to this study published by David Satterthwaite, Gordon McGranahan, and Cecilia Tacoli, in 1990 there was a ratio of nearly 7:1 in rural-urban populations. That is nearly 7 rural dwellers for every 1 urban dweller. In the last 30 years that ratio has shifted dramatically to just under 1:1, and projections suggest that by 2025 the ratio will be 2:3, two rural dwellers for every 3 urban (2010). The history of urbanization, and of the cities and towns that have seen incredible growth in the last few decades, is a history of political strength and economic success. There are opportunities in urban environments that don’t exist in rural areas, such as access to education, health care, or rapidly growing economies. Although the increase in urban opportunity is a positive impact of our population concentrating in this way, there are also significant negative impacts that must be considered.
Rural areas and agriculture industries have been incapable of matching pace with this growth, and as a result more and more farms are being pushed out of the industry. To the right is a map of farm loss in America from 2007 to 2012. In just those five years America lost more than 95,00 farms.
The farms being lost are those that can’t match the profits of the large farming enterprises, primarily smaller operations. These smaller farms are losing out to large scale farms capitalizing on next years profits at the expense of the future sustainability of the land. Good farming practices are dying out and being replaced by good profit practices. In an article from the Wall Street Journal, Jacob Bunge describes the cyclical nature of large-scale farming operations. “It fuels a cycle in which size begets size, further transforming the rural economy. Smaller-scale farmers struggle to expand their operations to become profitable. Work becomes more scarce. Farm-supply retailers and grain companies are pressured, since larger farms use their size to wrangle better deals” (2017).
Rural populations are dwindling, shifting towards the opportunities available in urban centers. There is a smaller workforce available for lots of smaller farms, so the industry becomes dominated by large-scale, large profit farms, and oftentimes urban populations are far too removed from the food system to notice or care about the difference.
As the study from David Satterthwaite, Gordon McGranahan, and Cecilia Tacoli points out, “the dependence of large concentrations of urban populations on long international supply chains for food, it makes them vulnerable to disasters in locations that supply those products, and to rising fuel prices.” The entire food supply is one long chain, from what has become a very small number of producers to a small number of highly concentrated areas of human population. Four percent of American farms produce two thirds of American agricultural output (Bunge, 2017). The entire system is composed of a few links connecting a relative few producers to a few centralized areas of consumption. From production to disposal, it’s a vulnerable system.
Urbanization of Trash
According to this study by Daniel Hoornweg and Perinaz Bhada-Tata, urban waste is growing at a faster rate than urbanization itself. In 2002 there were 2.9 billion urban residents, each producing 0.64 kg of waste per day. By 2012 the population had grown to 3 billion residents, but the rate of trash per person nearly doubled, reaching 1.2 kg per person per day. Estimates predict that by the year 2025 this will increase to 4.3 billion residents producing 1.42 kg per person per day (2012). Such significant growth in waste production has dangerous effects on a multiplicity of systems, including public health, local and global environments, and the economy. When waste is disposed of improperly it can have disastrous environmental effects, including the contamination of ground and surface water and increased air pollution from the improper burning of waste.
But how does this problem develop in the first place? If we could slow down urban consumption, it would reduce the levels the observed levels of urban waste. According to this paper by Barbara Boyle Torrey, the very act of living in an urban area disrupts consumption processes and makes people consume more of everything, but most especially of food. Torrey points to the example of China in the 1970s, highlighting how growing affluence lead urban populations to consume more than twice as much pork per person as rural population. Torrey specifically points to the economic development that occurs within urban centers, and the ways in which economic growth is directly tied to increased food consumption, and by extension an increase in waste (2004).
The process of urbanization and the systems of distribution within urban centers have substantially weakened our food systems. Shifting populations have created the need for large-scale low-labor farms. Once that food reaches urban settings it is unequally distributed, resulting in the development of food deserts. Finally, the waste from these systems is grows at a faster rate than the cities themselves, creating overburdened waste management systems. But how do the rural farming practices themselves affect our food systems?
Rural Food Systems
Both problems addressed in this section relate directly back to the idea of urbanization. There is increased demand for large scale farms operating with lower labor costs, and those lower labor costs impact the entire food system. But what are those decisions, and what effects do they have? The two practices identified in this paper are factory and monoculture farming.
According to this study from Food & Water Watch, between 1997 and 2007 there were substantial shifts in where and how food is raised in the United States. Small- and medium-sized dairy, cattle, and hog farms have been disappearing across the country, replaced by large-scale factory farms concentrated in specific areas where thousands of animals on each farm can produce more sewage than large cities. This waste can overwhelm the capacity of rural communities, and result in environmental and public health burdens (2010).
As mentioned above, the history of urbanization can be defined as a history of political strength and economic success. Big agribusiness had significant influence over policy choices strongly favoring larger operations. This was primarily driven by the meatpackers and processors that dominated critical steps in the food chain between consumers and producers of livestock (Food & Water Watch, 2010).
While this uninhibited growth of factory farming contributes to a whole host of problems, including public health, economic, food safety, and animal welfare, this paper will focus primarily on the environmental impacts arising from factory farms.
The main environmental impacts of factory farming can be seen in the pollution resulting from farm waste. This waste pollutes the water, land, and air surrounding the farms. The water and land are primarily affected by the manure produced by the animals themselves. Unlike human waste, which is processed at sewage treatment plants, animal waste is untreated and flushed into large waste pools often called lagoons. These pools of waste often leak or burst and spill into local waterways, spreading waste and odor throughout entire communities.
In addition to water and land pollution from animal waste, factory farms produce significant air pollution through emissions. Although the Clean Air act should curtail the pollution produced by these operations, it has been effectively avoided by the large-scale livestock industry since 2005. In 20015 the EPA announced that any farm joined a study on factory farm air emissions, they would be exempt from any air quality violations (Food & Water Watch, 2010).
The final problem addressed by this paper is monoculture farming. Monoculture farming is the practice of producing or growing a single crop in a field or farming system at one time. This process increases the efficiency of farming, as it can greatly reduce production costs. However, according to multiple studies, monoculture farming has negative impacts both on the health of the crops and the environment in general.
The main problem with monoculture farming is the reduction in biodiversity caused by planting only one plant species in an area. Agriculture is dependent on biodiversity in order to create resilient crops. New varieties of plants must be developed in order to keep up with new plant diseases. When farmers plant only one species on their field, it becomes vulnerable to any plant disease that can penetrate that single species. This not only creates a highly vulnerable field, but also works to increase pollution. In order to combat this increased vulnerability to disease and pests, farmers spray chemical pesticides and antibiotics across their fields. These sprays pollute the air, water, and soil, and harm both human and environmental health in the process (Horrigan, et al., 2002).
The problems facing our food systems are not one of rural vs. urban, or the agricultural sector vs. the non-agriculture sector. There are problems in every element of the food system, from production to transportation to distribution to disposal, and those problems affect and are affected by everyone participating within the system. Monoculture and factory farming are problems in the rural production of food, but are driven by increasing demand from urban centers and the decreasing availability of labor due to urbanization. Food deserts are a problem with food distribution arising from unequal access to healthy food options, but have impacts on the transportation and disposal of food. The shift of our population towards urban centers has allowed for greater access to opportunities such as education and health care, but has simultaneously lead to a drop off in labor supply for farm work. These problems are irrevocably intertwined, and they are impossible to solve until acknowledged as such.
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