Are U.S. Farms Feeding the U.S.?

We hear a lot about food. Whether it’s related to personal health, global trade, climate change or our daily meals — it’s often on our minds.

You may have an idea that the U.S. is full of farms, many of which are thousands of acres and use industrial farming practices, while others are smaller, may use more organic practices, focus on feeding their communities and exist outside of agribusiness. You also may know the U.S. exports a lot of the food we grow and may be responsible for helping to “feed the world”. Depending on where you live, you may associate American farms with different crops. If you’re from the West Coast you might think of avocados or almonds, in the Midwest you likely think of corn or wheat and the East Coast…apples?

Trying to understand the U.S. food system is an uphill battle. There are many different issues that are often siloed, and it can be difficult to get a bird’s eye view of the U.S. farming and food system as a whole. Pulling together a variety of sources, what follows is a high-level look at what American farms actually produce and it may look a lot different than you might have imagined.

Bottom line: A large portion of the crops America produces go into fueling our cars as corn becomes ethanol (which was mandated to make up 10% of our gas by Bush in 2005) and an even bigger portion goes to animal feed (which is mostly sent to China for its pigs to eat to feed China’s growing middle class.) This doesn’t exactly sound like a food system that can feed Americans today or into the future, especially in light of a terrifying statistic from the UN that due to population growth, food production will need to increase by 70% by 2050. This will prove quite challenging as land is a finite resource and most of it is already in use.

What does the U.S. actually grow?

According to USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) the predicted crop sales (aka what will be grown based on previous year’s data and projections) are as follows:

From the total projected crop sales of $201.7 billion, over 50% is not really food we eat. These crops are either feeding livestock (which we or other countries’ citizens ultimately eat), fueling our cars or producing oils (high fructose, soybean, etc) that go into our processed foods so they can be sweetened cheaply or preserved.

30% -Feed crops: corn, barley, oats, sorghum, and hay - NOT FOOD

20% -Oil crops: soybeans, peanuts, and other oilseeds - NOT REALLY FOOD

16% -Fruits and nuts - FOOD

9% -Vegetables and melons - FOOD

6% -Food grains: wheat and rice - FOOD

4% -Cotton - NOT FOOD

15% -Other crops including tobacco, sugar, greenhouse, and nursery - BARELY FOOD

Aside from not predominantly growing food for human consumption on our farms, below are some additional facts worth noting about our food system.

  • The crops listed above make up about 16% of the arable land in the U.S. while an additional 29% is used as pasture for livestock. [1]

  • Since 2008, U.S. agricultural exports have accounted for a 20% share of U.S. farm and manufactured or processed agricultural sales.[2]

  • The U.S. Government spends billions of dollars on crop insurance and subsidies each year to help farmers growing low value crops -predominately soybean and corn. Paying farmers for more corn and soybeans regardless of demand has resulted in the monocropping system we have today, where there is incentive to only plant corn and/or soybeans regardless of the damage done to the soil due to lack of diversity. [3]

  • The poor soil health from both monocropping and excessive tilling has killed off critical microbes and released large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Fertilizers are now the only way to return nutrients to the soil and pesticides are now required to keep pests away. Scientific American has stated that there are only 60 years of farming left if soil degradation continues at the current rate.[4]

  • According to the USDA, in the U.S, food waste is estimated to be between 30–40 percent of the food supply. [5]

The takeaways:

  • Government policies are keeping our food system the way it is. Don’t blame farmers; they are just trying to make a living.

  • We need to stop monocropping. There needs to be an incentive to diversify crops for the sake of the soil.

  • Eat less meat. This is an uphill battle. At the same time as Americans are eating less meat, U.S. farmers are exporting grain and soy to feed China’s livestock, and this is an issue we can’t do much about. Even if America’s farmers moved away from growing corn and soy for export, Brazil and other countries would step right in to accommodate China’s growing appetite for meat.

  • Processed food is a major culprit of our backwards system. Corporations have found ways to “add-value” aka manipulate and create frankenstein versions of corn and soy that make up our packaged/processed food industry which is what is really feeding Americans and fueling our obesity epidemic as well as contributing to growing rates of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, you name it. What would happen if these companies used real ingredients? Maybe the farmer could grow a grain that didn't have to be refined and stripped of its nutrients if a different grain was subsidized by the government in place of corn. Maybe companies could try using actual sweeteners or sugars rather than the oils and syrups and chemical flavorings if high fructose corn syrup wasn’t so cheap.

No matter what, we all have to eat, so let’s hope our land can continue to feed the nation for generations to come.

[1] https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/major-land-uses/maps-and-state-rankings-of-major-land-uses/

[2] https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45697.pdf

[3] https://farm.ewg.org/

[4] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/only-60-years-of-farming-left-if-soil-degradation-continues/

[5] https://www.usda.gov/foodwaste/faqs

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/monocrops-theyre-a-problem-but-farmers-arent-the- ones-who-can-solve-it/2014/05/09/8bfc186e-d6f8–11e3–8a78–8fe50322a72c_story.html

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