America has a valuable chance to reimagine our food system as a force to combat climate change

Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns picks a watermelon with the help of a safeway employee
Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns picks a watermelon with the help of a Safeway employee.

  • The global food system as it stands is jeopardizing our health and the environment. 
  • The government needs to make finding solutions a national priority. 
  • Incentivizing healthy eating and implementing regenerative farming practices will help put us on the right path. 
  • Paul Lightfoot is the Founder and President of BrightFarms.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Imagine a world where the United States has improved our food system so that it actually draws carbon from the atmosphere rather than adding to it, provides nutritious and affordable food for every American, and gives our farmworkers the income and respect they deserve.

This is an achievable reality, but unfortunately, our current food system is still taking us in the opposite direction. Government policy has been hijacked by “Big Food”-the farm input suppliers, ingredient processors, and peddlers of cheap, highly processed foods. Our policies favor practices that are at odds with the health of Americans and our planet. Our farming practices are degrading the soil and natural resources that we need to survive in the future.  
 
The global food system is responsible for roughly one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the way we eat is the leading cause of death among Americans. This is the great paradox of the American food system. We’re producing enormous quantities of convenient food at amazingly low prices, while simultaneously wrecking the health of our population and destroying the environment.

Despite all of this, I’m optimistic. As America navigates a series of new beginnings it is a perfect time to re-imagine our food system for the sake of our health, for job creation, and to realize one of President Biden’s most important campaign promises: to reverse climate change.
 
There are straightforward solutions achieve these goals: Creating incentives to increase fruit and vegetable consumption; and accelerating the adoption of regenerative land practices. 

Incentivize healthy eating

The USDA policies that influence food producers are disconnected from our national nutrition policies. In other words, while we tell people to eat fruits and vegetables, we provide incentives to farms to create low-nutrition and cheap processed foods and meat, and to grow grains for ethanol to fuel cars in a nonsensical way. 

Only about 1 in 10 Americans eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables. Shifting our diets toward more fruits and vegetables would reduce diet-related chronic diseases, reduce the costs of healthcare, and even improve our military readiness.
 
I’m pleased to see President Biden expand the federal food assistance programs for low-income families, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But this lever could be used more effectively. The single largest item in the US food assistance programs, at more than $7 billion per year, is soda.  “In this sense, SNAP is a multibillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy of the soda industry,” said Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University. “It’s pretty shocking.” 

Soda and sugar-sweetened beverages are the single biggest cause of obesity and type 2 diabetes.  And we’re not just paying the consequences by becoming sicker. According to Tuft University’s Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian,the health consequences of bad diets cost the US $1 trillion annually.

The Biden administration should continue to expand SNAP while using its buying power to further increase fruit and vegetable consumption. I’m hopeful the administration will expand the already successful Double Bucks programs, which double the value of SNAP benefits when people use them to buy local fruits and vegetables. We should also invest in robust public health education campaigns that empower low-income Americans to prepare more meals from fresh fruits and vegetables. 

Let’s make this a national priority.  I’d like to see President Biden use the bully pulpit of the office to rally Americans to double the per capita consumption of fruits and vegetables. 

And of course, more fruits and vegetables wouldn’t just improve our health. Switching some of the American diet away from meat and dairy toward fruits and vegetables, will also decrease our greenhouse gas emissions and help turn back climate change.  

Regenerative Practices That Help (not Harm) the Environment

If the Biden administration is going to achieve its goal of fighting climate change, reversing harmful agriculture practices must be a high priority.

We must provide incentives for farms to adopt regenerative practices, such as the use of cover crops, no tilling, and crop rotation. This is not a novel idea – these proven practices have been taught by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for decades. Regenerative practices rebuild soil health, sequester carbon (drawing it from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil), restore the health of waterways and reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides. Numerous studies confirm that farmers using these practices can achieve higher profits by reducing their input costs.  

We need to reduce the monocropping – growing the same crop on the same land year after year – which hurts the soil and leads to the contamination of our waterways. .  One way to do this would be to convert monocrop farmland to a more wild and biodiverse state. This can be done with policies and financial incentives to accelerate more intense production of crops in high-tech, indoor farms that use orders of magnitude less land and water.  

Imagine a network of highly productive regional greenhouse farms growing nearly all of America’s leafy greens, cucumbers, strawberries, raspberries, herbs, squash, peppers, and tomatoes. With incentives for renewable energy microgrids, indoor farms would sprout throughout the country, creating resilient decentralized food supply chains. 

These farms would provide sustainable and healthy local produce to Americans everywhere, allow for the rehabilitation of land across the West and Midwest, and store considerable amounts of water and carbon across thousands of square miles of land.

We have a long way to go, but we are moving in the right direction. One good sign is that the private sector is moving faster than the government. You can see examples in the blue chip investors betting on regenerative farming practices, on the carbon negative food brands sprouting up to meet growing consumer demand, and by watching large companies paying farmers to store carbon to offset those company’s own carbon footprints. The government needs to accelerate this movement, and with urgency. The health of our people and planet depends on it.

Paul Lightfoot is the Founder and President of BrightFarms, which builds and operates high-tech greenhouse farms to eliminate time, distance and costs from the food system.  Paul has been leading the company since 2011 on its mission to provide consumers with the freshest, tastiest and most responsibly grown produce. BrightFarms is creating the first national brand of local produce, and does so with materially less land and water. 

Read the original article on Business Insider