Is a just (and robust) food system possible?


I was able to brave the snowy roads on Monday evening to attend the Tom Philpott lecture at UW-Whitewater, which was part of the L&S Contemporary Issues Lecture series.

Philpott, who is both a farmer and journalist (with Mother Jones), argued that moving toward sustainable agriculture in our country is not a matter of technology, but rather politics. He cited a study from Iowa that demonstrated that adding just one more crop to a field rotation (corn\soy\wheat, rather than corn\soy) can significantly reduce a farmer’s need to spray and fertilize, because the wheat can break up pest cycles on the land and add more organic matter to the soil to reduce the erosion of soil and nutrients. While a three-crop system has started to make a comeback around Wisconsin, many farmers aren’t incorporating these changes because they are more management intensive and Philpott argues that the agribusiness lobby pushes for more chemicals and subsidy-based programs within a corn-on-corn program because it is more profitable for them. He sees systems that incorporate cover crops, utilize organic matter mulches, and have multi-year rotation programs as being just as productive as ‘conventional’ approaches (or even more productive during times of drought). These systems greatly benefit the ecology and longevity of the farm, but don’t rely on as many inputs and are therefore are missing from the Farm Bill conversation that is so heavily steered by lobbyists.

Philpott also discussed some of the upcoming challenges with our nation’s concentration of crops, especially our huge reliance on California to meet the majority of our produce needs. California (our primary source of fruits and vegetables) and the Great Plains states (corn and wheat) are are draining their aquifers to grow produce for the nation, while injuring their soils via the salt build-up that comes from a system that relies only on irrigation. Iowa, one of the nation’s major sources of corn, is losing its topsoil at 16 times the speed it takes to regenerate. As small scale produce growers at Regenerative Roots, we are concerned with the huge drought that California is currently experiencing (as a basis for comparison when looking at that link, the 2012 drought in Wisconsin was primarily D2-D3; California’s is significantly worse) and curious to see how it affects the grocery stores across the country . We anticipate substantial price increases and shortages to be the norm in a few months. If there ever was a season to focus on buying more locally, this is likely it!

Philpott is hopeful that ‘voting with our forks’ is part of the solution towards a sustainable food system, as well as getting involved with your local food system. He encouraged many of the university students in the audience to take up the problem of our food system as the challenge of their times, rather than go into careers of finance – to learn more by volunteering at the university garden with SAGE or at a local farm like Regenerative Roots.

The issue of designing a just (and robust) food system is a much bigger topic than can be covered in a single lecture. Philpott did an excellent job of arguing how some of the converging issues of our time (natural gas from fracking, intense droughts in California, erosion of topsoil, unpredictable weather extremes) are intrinsically linked to agriculture and how there are more sustainable solutions out there. We will keep advocating for change in Washington and encourage you to do the same, but being the change yourself goes a long, long way.

-Anne, Feb 21st, 2014