Albert Einstein once said, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.”
The same can be said of U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s newfound commitment to “get Americans to eat more healthful foods while also boosting crop production to feed a growing world population.” As he notes, “These two goals have often been at odds.”
Since the end of World War II, every USDA Secretary has embraced boosting crop production to feed a growing world population. Unfortunately, in every administration, that has meant the production of more corn and soybeans. Instead of solving the world’s food crisis, the USDA’s policies have only made it worse.
Fully one half of the corn and soy grown in the U.S. are fed directly to livestock. By 2012, one third of the corn crop will go into ethanol. Ten percent, give or take, will be exported and likely fed to livestock. The rest will be converted into processed foods, corn chips, other snack items and the ubiquitous high fructose corn sweetener.
The result is an international food system completely out of balance. South and Central American farmers are pushed to export fruits and vegetables to the developed world rather than feed their own people. The amount of oil used in farming grain and transporting imported produce continues to increase. And the grain-producing farmland that fattens our livestock, powers our cars and sweetens the forty gallons of soda per capita we drink each year is unavailable for the healthy food we should be growing.
Clearly, this is not the answer. If we want to solve our food problems, we need to bring new ideas to the table.
Most importantly, and I say this as a livestock producer, we must move to a diet less centered on animal products. Reducing our dependence on grain-fed livestock will free up vast acreage for staple food crops, rangeland and forests.
We also need to explore new ways of local food production, such as hoop houses, grass-based livestock, and seasonal eating. We need to produce good food locally and push for economic reforms that enable everyone to afford that good local food. And we need to reorient our national priorities to food production for domestic consumption.
Internationally, governments need to promote people over markets, replacing the blind devotion to free markets that has only produced more poverty, more hunger, and an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor. And we must reject the idea that farm workers in any nation should be forced to labor for less than a fair living wage.
With these fundamental reforms, we can, as the new administration says, begin to make a “very significant push” to increase the consumption of affordable, quality food in America.