Challenges Facing the U.S Food System

As Americans consume more food, farmers raise more livestock and develop more land. The agricultural system faces a manifold of challenges and no part of the industry is untouched. A close look at American agriculture reveals problems with inequality, poverty, and waste. To learn more, Marylhurst’s Online MBA in Sustainable Business program explored the current challenges currently facing the U.S. Food System in the infographic below.

Industrial Agriculture

Farmers constitute just 1% of the population, but they are aging. Agriculture experts wonder who will replace these farmers when they retire or die. The irony is that just 9% of farms are responsible for 66% of agricultural production, leaving the industry vulnerable. While numbers of farmers diminish, so does available cropland. Between 1997 and 2007, acreage decreased from 455 million to 408 million acres.

Farming and production have a negative environmental impact.  Use of insecticides increased ten-fold between 1945 and 1989 with little benefit.  During that same time period, insect-related damage has nearly doubled.

Use of insecticides is just one of the many problems facing the industry. Of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions, the agricultural sector contributes 8%, and livestock are mostly responsible. Industrial food production also creates 335 million tons of dry manure waste and uses 10.5% of the nation’s energy. Of America’s fossil fuel consumption, this sector accounts for 19%.

Public health is also directly harmed by certain agricultural practices. Samples for 70% of public and domestic drinking water showed traces of one or more volatile organic compounds, pesticides, or nitrates from human sources. Samples of water from 12% of wells did not meet health standards.

Pesticide residues remain on food even as it reaches grocery stores and markets. In 2005, 73% of fresh produce samples carried this residue, as did 61% of processed food samples.

Furthermore, Americans working at or living near factory farms were also at much greater risk of developing respiratory illness.

The final environmental challenge facing farmers has to do with logistics: getting food to grocery stores and animals to processing plants. Everyday food travels between 1,500 and 3,000 miles to reach consumers. Meanwhile, if consumers have access to local produce, they tend to eat more of it.

Social and Economic Inequities

There are severe economic challenges facing farm workers in America. Farm workers are among the lowest paid workers in the country and almost 75% of farm workers earn less than $10,000 annually. Most shockingly, more than 60% of farmers live below the poverty line. In 2011, figures showed that 83% of farmers needed to hold down another job to bring in 84% of their household income. Increasing the retail price of many food items by just 5 cents could raise wages by at least 40%.

Around 12% of restaurant workers and up to 50% of farm laborers are immigrants. More than half of them are injured on the job yearly compared with an average of 4% in other sectors. More than 80% lack employer health insurance, resulting in 35% of them using the Emergency Room for primary care instead of seeing a doctor. They have no employee benefits to make this affordable.

While employees in many industries are given a certain number of sick days annually, 75% of farm workers receive no sick days and 53% of laborers work when they are sick for this reason, potentially contaminating the nation’s food.

Agricultural laborers have fewer rights than other employees. For instance, unless a farmer employs 6 or more workers for 3 months at a time or more, he does not have to pay minimum wage. His employees are not entitled to mandatory breaks, workers’ compensation, or unemployment insurance.

As for women, they are under-represented at the higher end of the sector. Their industry is the least likely to employ women as managers, executives, or administrators. Their farms are smaller and less lucrative than those of men in general. Women are responsible for 49% of employed hours in grocery stores, but in the lowest-paid positions. Out of 6.5 million jobs in the food service industry, women held 77% of them (servers, greeters, etc.) but there were far fewer women than men in paid cooking positions or employed as head chefs.

Consumer Perspectives

Out of those Americans surveyed, 59% do not know enough about their food and 81.3% want to see more information on labels. Other options would be to provide more information on retail displays, in literature, and on the Internet. When asked what their priorities were when they shopped, 30.5% wanted their food to be produced in humane conditions and 22% wanted their food to be locally grown.

Consumers wasted a disturbing 26% of edible food accounting for $48.4 billion. In 2006, food supply per person equaled 3,600 calories. But with waste factored in, this amounted to 2,534 calories consumed per day by the average American: a difference of just over 1,000 calories each.


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