With a new administration taking office in 2017 and potentially a lot of very big changes for farmers and consumers just around the corner, we've rounded up a list of what we think will be some of the top food and agriculture issues for the coming year. We've also added some ideas for how you can help keep the momentum going to support the good food movement in 2017. From action on GMO labeling, to plastic bag bans to a potential shift away from policies to support local and sustainable agriculture, 2017 is shaping up to be an important year in our fight for a more sustainable food system.
1. Food Waste on the Rise
Food waste was one of the most pressing topics of 2016, and it will only continue to gain attention as we transition into 2017. The issue is two-pronged: in the United States, 40 percent of food is wasted, while one in eight people are suffer from hunger. These statistics are a symptom of an inefficient and misdirected food system. What's more, addressing the problem requires action across the entire supply chain: consumer education and advocacy to tackle food waste at home; pushing for improved approaches at the commercial level that keep food waste at the forefront; untangling the politics surrounding expiration date labeling; and re-directing excess food to where it's needed most.
The good thing about food waste? There are endless things that we as consumers can do to make a positive impact - starting in our very own kitchens! We have the agency to keep food waste in mind when shopping, prepping, cooking and saving, and collectively we can make a big difference. (In fact, here are five easy ways to reduce food waste!) If you're looking for more resources, there are countless organizations and campaigns out there to turn to for support.
2. Corporate Control and Consolidation
With the announcement that Bayer was buying Monsanto, the problem of consolidation in our food system reared its ugly head again. With the Bayer-Monsanto deal, just three companies will control 59 percent of the world's seeds and 64 percent of the world's pesticides. But this level of food system consolidation has been happening for a long time. In the US, just four companies now control 85 percent of the beef market and just four companies control 65 percent of the chicken market. Animal slaughtering and processing facilities are similarly concentrated. As we explained earlier in the year, this level of consolidation is bad for our food system (and for us!) for a lot of different reasons, from lack of competition, to food safety issues, to the loss of important localized food infrastructure.
So what can you do about it? The simple answer is to seek out local food from local purveyors, when you can. Support local farmers raising their food sustainably, seek out local farmers' markets and ask questions (we promise you - the farmers won't mind!). Try growing some of your own food if you have the time (and space), using seeds from some of the many fantastic heirloom seed companies cropping up all over the country.
3. President Elect Promises to Return to Conventional Agriculture
After the presidential election, a "talking points" document created for President Elect Trump's agriculture advisory committee obtained by journalists at Politico vowed to "defend American agriculture against its critics, particularly those who have never grown or produced anything beyond a backyard tomato plant" and return to conventional, as opposed to organic, farming methods. The memo also includes promises for the new administration to be a "active participant" in writing the next Farm Bill, fight the "good food movement" and undo Obama-era agricultural and environmental policies.
In addition, the incoming administration has added Brian Klippenstein, executive director of Protect the Harvest -a group that defends CAFOs, puppy mills and is a fierce critic of animal rights groups like the Humane Society - to the team handling transition at the USDA. Both of these moves signal a significant departure from the Obama administration's commitment to supporting sustainable, local agriculture through initiatives like Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.
With the loss of support and commitment from the USDA on the horizon, small scale, local, organic and sustainable farmers are really going to need your help. This year, do what you can to help these important businesses and the environment with your dollars by shopping at your local farmers market or signing up for a CSA membership.
4. America Is Losing its Small Farms
The 2016 election turned the nation's attention on the support Trump found among rural voters. Some of this support came from unrest over the decline of rural economies linked to the loss of small family farms. When digging into the USDA's data, we find the number of economically viable farms has dropped as land ownership has consolidated. In 1950, the average farm size was 212 acres. In 2010, the average size of farms selling more than $10,000 per year was 1,232 acres. This trend is tied to a farm policy typified by the words of Nixon's bigoted Ag Secretary, Earl Butz, when he told farmers to "get big or get out." In 2017, we'll need to support small farmers in their fight for policies that allow them to access and retain farm land and strengthen rural economies.
Not only is farm policy complex, but the lobbyists and officials who influence it do not often have small farms and sustainable food in mind. You can do your part: learn where your representatives stand on food and agriculture policy based on their record on Food Policy Action's recent scorecard and support organizations that help farmers like Farm Aid and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
5. GMO Labelling (Kinda) Coming to a Store Near You
The controversy over whether and how to label food made with genetically-modified ingredients reached a fever pitch in 2016. Just a month after Vermont's first-in-the-nation GMO labeling law went into effect, the President signed a bill that superseded it, referred to by labeling proponents as the Dark Act. The good: within two years all food products sold in the US will need to indicate whether they're made with GMO ingredients. The bad: those labels can come in the form of awkward QR codes, phone numbers or website URLs. That puts the burden on the consumer, requiring them to have a smart phone or computer handy while they work their way through supermarket aisles.
While the federally-required labels may be of questionable value, there are other existing GMO labels you can look for if you want more certainty...and simplicity. Keep an eye out for the Non-GMO Project label, and remember that if a product is labeled USDA Organic, it can't have any genetically modified ingredients.
6. Should Hydroponics Be Organic?
When the national organic standards were established in 1990, National Organics Standards Board[NOSB] members envisioned a future full of enriched soil supplying the country's agricultural needs. Fast forward to 2016 and new methods of farming that don't involve soil - methods such as hydroponic farming where produce is grown in water - are challenging the notion of what it means to be certified organic. NOSB members are in the process of evaluatingwhether or not to let soilless farmers into the organics club. Proponents say "they make smart use of resources and thus have less negative impact on the natural environment." Soil-based farmers are pushing back, saying, produce from these systems "is generally grown under artificial lighting, indoors, and on an industrial scale."
Ultimately, you vote with your dollars. Whether you're after personal health or a healthy environment, hydroponic and organic foods are just two menu choices to consider in your quest for a sustainable future.
7. States Take on Plastic Bag Problem
The ubiquitous and nearly indestructible plastic bag is a target of anti-pollution efforts. The states of California and Hawaii have bans on the product, while many cities and counties have either bans or fees in place in an attempt to curtail their use. Several states have pending legislation regarding bag regulations that may indicate that 2017 will continue the momentum in expanding regulations in how goods are packaged at the point of sale. Municipalities may also look at rules regarding the treatment of bags; however, that will not be occurring in Arizona, Idaho and Missouri where the state preempts municipalities from taking action on plastic bags and other "auxiliary containers."
Fortunately, you do not have to wait on regulations when deciding on how you are going to get your grocery items home from the store. You can stop pollution at the source because there are many options for reusable bags, totes and "auxiliary containers" that you can take to the store and reuse again and again.
8. New Water Bill Buoys Agriculture
It was the driest of times, it was the wettest times, and the bipartisan bill called the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN) will significantly affect US infrastructure and policy, agriculture especially. Approved in mid-December, WIIN totals $9 billion and has lots of pros (Flint gets $170 million) but some cons. Take California and Florida. WIIN allows drought-ravaged farmers to divert more irrigation water their way from the Bay Delta during floods. This is good for some farmers, but not for the Delta region where farmers, ecosystems and fisherieswill lose water on which they all depend. Likewise, Florida gets a $2 billion boost to help agriculture clean up water that causes toxic algae and restores the Everglades. At the same time, a directive stops negotiations between Florida, Georgia and Alabama as they worked towards a compromise over disputed river water that isn't flowing to Florida and is destroying its oyster industry.
Most of the water in the United States goes towards agriculture, and food comprises the vast majority (at least two-thirds!) of your personal water footprint. If you're eager to find out your water footprint and learn ways to reduce it, take the Water Footprint Calculator at WaterCalculator.org.
9. Consumers Push Companies Towards Better Animal Welfare
In 2016, farm animal welfare continued to grow in importance with an increasing number of mainstream consumers taking interest and action when it comes to the conditions in which farm animals are raised. A new national survey released over the summer by the ASPCA revealed that more than three in four Americans are concerned about farm animal welfare. And in November, an overwhelming number of Massachusetts residents voted yes on a groundbreaking ballot measure that bans specific types of farm animal containment. Sure, Massachusetts is one of the country's bluest states, but protecting animals from harm is an issue of concern that crosses party lines - which provides some hope at a time when our country seems more divided than ever. Agribusiness leaders across the board have taken notice and are implementing improvements to animal welfare in their supply chains. We wholeheartedly expect concern and action regarding animal welfare to continue in 2017.
While shopping, look for welfare certification labels, like Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), that are aligned with your animal welfare values. AWA demonstrates the highest standards of animal welfare. You can also ask your farmer, rancher and butcher about their meat and the conditions under which the animals were raised.
10. Trying To Figure Out: What Exactly Does "Natural" Mean?
When you're grocery shopping and you see something marked "natural," what comes to mind? Does it mean fresh, whole ingredients to you? Maybe it evokes and image of a sunny farm with green pastures and rich, dark soil? Does it actually mean anything? The truth is, there is no legal definition of "natural" where food is concerned. A number of consumer groups are asking why the label is even allowed on our food given the confusion it causes consumers. This past year, the FDA asked the public to weigh in on how to define the term and whether it should (or shouldn't) be used on food labels. The agency ended up receiving 7,600 comments, all of which you can read if you're so inclined.
The next time you're shopping and you reach for an item marked "natural," you'll know that the label guarantees little to nothing about how that food was grown or raised. Instead, check out tools like the Environmental Working Group's Food Scores database to get honest information on everything from nutrition to sustainability.
Looking Forward predictions contributed by: James Rose, Gabrielle Blavatsky, Robin Madel, Peter Hanlon, Kyle Rabin, James Saracini, Kate Johnson and Kai Olson-Sawyer.