• 06.12.12

Changing A Food System From Big And Slow To Fast And Nimble

Big agriculture isn’t doing a lot of innovating, but small farms are coming up with new ideas to maximize sustainable agriculture all the time. We should refocus our food production to focus more on new ideas than on maximizing cheap production.

We are living in a broken food system, and there is one important ingredient for fixing it: proactive problem solving, meaning progressive, not set in stone, with an openness to multiple possibilities. We are seeing this kind of work happening in many pockets around the world. That’s why I believe–contrary to some heavyweights in the food industry –that we can support life on planet Earth from seed-to-plate, without destroying it.


It all starts with reframing a way of thinking that sets us on a path of long-term and sustainable growth that works for big and small players alike. One basic premise lies at the foundation: Eating well is the right of every human being, all 7 billion of us.

Somewhere in our recent history something went terribly wrong. Perhaps it was during the Green Revolution? In the late 1950s, we started an unprecedented focus on extracting more food per acre. We succeeded. In the 1960s and 1970s, we produced more food than we could possibly eat. But these efficiencies started to slowly destroy us. By the 1980s and 1990s, our soil, water, bees, crop varieties, farmers, domestic and international communities, animals, and, sadly, our health were in serious trouble. We had more than enough food, but we weren’t necessarily eating well–for ourselves or for our world.

Today, 60 years later, many would say that the methods of industrial agriculture–which is, really, a monoculture–continue to be good for us. We still produce in abundance, but with no variety. Our food is messed with through the use of pesticides, antibiotics, fungicides, and GMOs. Food scientists have created “Frankenfoods” that we no longer recognize. We’re sick with diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. These industrial methods may be good for the bottom line of the world’s largest food businesses, but they have become lethal for us eaters. The hidden price tags (what we call “externalized costs,” like the destruction of rainforest for grazing, or the obesity epidemic in our nation’s poorest) are but collateral damage when we myopically focus on the economics only.

Let me explain in more detail: Large food businesses like commodity food because it keeps prices at the lowest possible point. Trying to stay out of these volatile commodity markets is a goal for many small farmers because they have more control over pricing. Adding value to your product, by doing something like making artisan cheese versus selling liquid weight milk to a wholesaler, gives the farmer the ability to resist constant price fluctuations, which allows for some predictability in managing a farm.

The organic market realized this many years ago. It delivered higher quality food without being subject to outside market forces. By expanding from a solely economic frame to a more encompassing view that includes environmental stewardship, the diet and health of people and animals, and the vibrancy of communities in which they live, the organic market shifted the possibilities for our food systems, showing us that new, more diverse sets of options were available and beneficial in more ways than one.

That’s not to say that big is bad. I want to underscore that. But, big is bad when it squeezes out the possibilities for innovation at a micro level, such as those we see in smaller, regional systems. Smaller, more integrated farming, processing, and distribution practices can co-exist with larger, industrial ones.


Just look at Vermont. The state is a model for the future. It was just named the number one state for growing and eating local foods. Production and consumption exist in a sustainable cycle. Its small-scale agriculture sector continues to bring fresh, healthy local foods to the table while practicing the resiliency it has since the 1700s, blended with the latest sustainable innovations.

So let’s reframe the system. As long as we remain in the big business economic frame, designed for its own perpetuity, we will doom ourselves to a broken system. We must re-evaluate monolithic models, even the ones that feed us, with optimism to create better, more sustainable food systems that meet consumer demand for fresh healthy food grown by people we know. Big business can continue to profit if it adopts more inclusive ways of provision that include smaller regional models. Maintaining our desperate focus on growth at this pace is simply unsustainable. The development of resilient systems that sustain future generations is the only way forward and we need to work on this together.