Working with EU on food sustainability requires redefining US agricultural governance

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Biden administration must begin a food diplomacy revolution, writes Sophia Murphy. [Shutterstock/Gustavo Frazao]

The Biden administration must begin a food diplomacy revolution, starting with food system transformation at home and learning from other countries, writes Sophia Murphy.

Sophia Murphy is the executive director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Last week, the Trump Administration’s ambassadors to Rome and Brussels (Kip Tom and Ronald Gidwitz respectively) published a joint opinion piece in Euractiv. Their initial message was good.

In brief, they noted that global hunger is a scourge and on the rise. This is true; although they did not mention it, the US, too, is facing rising levels of hunger.

They said there is no single solution to the problem and called for a diversity of tools, “bold action” and collaboration across both sectors and nations to meet the challenge.

They praised the European Union’s “Green Deal” and listed “increased environmental stewardship, improved biodiversity and globally equitable access to healthy, nutritious food,” as goals for the world’s food systems.

But then came the somehow inevitable yet untenable claim: “We are convinced the science and data-based, technology-focused US model that has helped propel modern agriculture to incredible levels of sustainable productivity will be a critical piece in the broader strategy to continue feeding a growing world.”

The assertion is all too familiar. The Trump and Obama administrations differed in so many fundamental ways that finding similarities feels a bit shocking. Yet the arrogance of U.S. assumptions about the role of US agriculture in the world have not changed for decades.

The myth that US food feeds the world, for instance, and that barriers to U.S. exports must be eliminated. The insistence that US agricultural technologies (complete with monopoly-granting patents) must be adopted everywhere, even though US regulatory systems are deeply flawed, underfunded, neglected, and inadequate.

The fact that other cultures and economic ideals have led to sufficient food, far better environmental outcomes, more nutritious diets, and more prosperous rural communities is not acknowledged. Nor are the deep divisions within the US over the future of domestic food and agriculture.

The government shuts down challenges to fossil-fuelled agriculture in international negotiations. It does not discuss how US food systems are failing. Yet the country suffers from world-leading levels of obesity coupled with rising food insecurity.

Fully 55% of assessed US rivers and streams, 71% of lakes, and 84% of bays and estuaries were found in 2017 to have impaired water quality, with agriculture named as the biggest source of harm in rivers and streams. 46% of hog operations and 59% of dairies, nationally, do not report a nutrient management plan.

One-third of the fertilizer applied annually to corn acres in the U.S. is needed just to compensate for declining soil fertility. The U.S. lost over 100,000 farms between 2011 and 2018.

Net of government payments, which reached extraordinary levels under President Trump, more than half of US farmers have lost money every year since 2013. Farms continue to consolidate, and concentration levels in the agri-businesses that provide farm inputs and buy and process crops continues to rise unchecked.

President-elect Biden will have to do better. The world needs the same spirit of humility and determination that he and his team are bringing to the US race and inequity crisis.

The change needs to start with a clear view of how the US government is seen by its neighbours—understanding that repeated abuse of our relative wealth and power has eroded our capacity for empathy and cost us international goodwill.

Just transition is needed in food systems, too: a transition from fossil-fuelled agriculture to renewable agriculture, coupled with a transition to listening better, truly respecting diversity, and accepting difference. Here are three ideas to start the US government on a diplomatic food revolution:

Start with the work of food system transformation at home. Learn from other countries, and from the full diversity of what the United States has to offer. Learn from the experience of municipal food policy councils and public investments in regional food systems, for example using public procurement to meet education, health, environment, and economic goals.

Seek coherence in the administration’s policies. Address the climate crisis while upholding all the Sustainable Development Goals together. Trade and investment policy shape food and agricultural systems around the world. They continue to be at odds with decades of work on health and the environment. Use sustainable norms to direct and limit commercial ambition. Stop using commerce to limit the sustainability ambitions of others.

Invest in mechanisms, such as the UN Committee on World Food Security, that offer a forum for learning and exchange among governments and civil society organizations. Aim to build effective and shared risk management systems in an era of tremendous and growing uncertainty, prioritizing the need for inclusion and shared decision-making.

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