In early-2017, I authored an op-ed piece on how the endangerment of bee species needs to be front-and-center as an issue for political action. Along with researching pollinator science and constructing solutions, we must translate that into a platform for public policy. People often ask me what I mean when I talk about the need for sustainable agriculture to become a major component amid political dialogue. It includes a host of dilemmas and possible fixes. But first, it requires that we acknowledge the roles that pesticides, varroa mites, pathogens, and human irresponsibility play in causing bee colonies to die off. Then, we must commit to an ambitious slate of tangible legislative action.
It’s what I refer to as the REGIS initiative – an acronym that stands for:
Raising Eating Growing Inventing Sustaining
or, even more specifically…
Re-pollinate Educate Gestate Insolate Satiate
To any politicians, aspiring candidates, or other activists who happen to be reading this right now: feel free to steal any of these ideas for your own political platforms in your cities, districts, and states.
Aside from the biological and ecological devastation to bees (as I outlined in my January 2017 op-ed entitled “Here’s What Can Be Done About The Honeybee Crisis”), we need better agricultural policies to keep our food supply robust for generations to come. Small farmers and family-owned farms need support to expand and modernize their technology.
Part of the overriding dilemma is how Big Ag wants to control the food supply for its own economic benefit. The largest agribusiness interests in the United States – including Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, BASF, Winfield, Dow, and Bayer – tend to put their money behind policies that will encourage an overproduction of corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat. This imbalance comes at the expense of healthier crops – namely fruits, vegetables, and nuts. On top of that, crop diseases, natural disasters, and pestilence on a global scale threatens the availability of fresh produce that is normally grown outdoors.
I understand how Big Ag prefers to continue to dominate the market. These companies don’t want to lose out to smaller producers. That’s fine – but, in the process, they aren’t considering the long-term consequences to our overall food supply. As decades pass by, they’re not going to continue generating their huge profits if unpredictable weather makes conditions for growing these crops scarce altogether. This is why pollinator protection and sustainable agricultural practices must become a priority that transcends party lines. Mainstreaming indoor agriculture, even incrementally, brings all of us closer to such a prosperous future. The reality of climate change only hastens this necessity.
Those of us who care about this issue should be working with the National Farmers Organization, which lobbies on behalf of growers to pool their commodities at fairer prices. This can include feasible organic methods. We should also support the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, because it lobbies Washington D.C. for policies that will increase health and nutrition of American farmers with a special focus on small and mid-sized family farmers. Our goal should be to increase the size of a hypothetical Sustainability Lobby…so it can someday rival those of Big Ag, Big Oil, Big Pharma, and the banks.
Hence, the proposed REGIS initiative. I suggest it be a multi-pronged effort: simultaneously focused on a blend of policy, education, and fundraising.
The hallmark of a new culture for agricultural sustainability should be the goal to make hydroponics, vertical farming, and ecological farming more efficient and cost-effective. It needs to become the norm for modern agriculture, rather than the exception. “Ecological farming” refers to agricultural practices that strive to keep water and soil quality viable over long periods of time. Hydroponics is when crops are grown using nutrients dissolved in water instead of soil. Vertical farming occurs when crops are grown in vertically-stacked layers, using either hydroponics or aeroponics (the latter involves hydration via a nutrient-rich spray in lieu of water irrigation). And this revolution can extend to raising and breeding fish or other seafood for consumption through aquaculture (often done indoors by aquarium-based water filtration).
New legislation should seek to relax local restrictions on hobby farmers. Some communities ban independent growers from selling their harvests – this is often done at the behest of homeowners’ insurance companies, demanding that residents tear out their front yard gardens due to “aesthetics.” Other jurisdictions have made compost piles and the capture of rainwater illegal. With drought plaguing so many areas of the U.S., one would think that allowing Americans to voluntarily utilize water-catching barrels and rooftop cisterns for emergency preparation would be considered an essential practice.
We need to look at re-implementing what was lost following the passage of the 1996 Farm Bill’s “Freedom to Farm” provisions. Congress should bring back target prices, competition titles, deficiency payments, minimum price floors, and strategic grain reserves. The concept of “agricultural reserves,” in particular, will ensure that the government has stockpiles of grains and seeds available for use in the event of an ecological catastrophe. These safeguards will keep prices stable for consumers and wages beneficial for farmers. Former U.S. Congressman John Conyers had repeatedly introduced the Saving America’s Pollinators Act to suspend the use of neonicotinoid insecticides until their safety can be reevaluated; whoever takes over for Conyers in the U.S. House of Representatives would be wise to carry this torch.
Above all else, there ought to be major tax incentives for producers who shift to hydroponics and other greenhouse-based technology where fruits and vegetables are grown in controlled environments. The USDA needs to have strong guidelines in place to prevent contamination or pathogen outbreaks. By reinstating Country-Of-Origin Labeling (COOL) requirements – and also creating Country-Of-Processing Labeling for beef, seafood, and poultry – consumers will be able to make better purchasing choices based on straightforward, transparent, objective data. Free trade can still exist within this climate…but the concept of having free trade for the sake of having free trade isn’t worth the risk of public health infections. We should also make sure that any legislation intended to encourage local production (such as the Hickman/Jackson food sovereignty bill in Maine) is compatible with standards set by USDA inspectors.
Alongside of legislation, we could also be increasing public awareness of what individuals can do to help mitigate threats to our food supply. For example, why not have local/state clearinghouses through which honey producers can advertise and more easily sell to customers in surrounding counties and statewide? We should promote public awareness campaigns to teach homeowners how to best utilize their front yards and back yards for gardening. One common problem is that pesticides used in cornfields often contaminate the bee populations; this could be partially solved if we mapped out nonbinding “prairie zones” to discourage beekeepers from operating in high-risk areas (e.g. where chemical-laden crops occupy great amounts of acreage).
Simple education can make a big difference. Danielle Downey, Executive Director of Project Apis m. (PAm), points out how many landscapers tend to get rid of clover amid lawns due to aesthetic preferences; yet, clover provides a high amount of nourishment to bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. Gardeners can also integrate certain types and colors of flora into their yards to attract pollinators, along with setting up “do-it-yourself” water-feeding stations to keep bees and other pollinators hydrated.
Locally, we should be making better use of aquacultural fish farms on vacant land. Former U.S. Congressman Kerry Bentivolio has been doing this in the suburban and urban Detroit metropolitan area, as well as encouraging the franchising of charter K-12 Hillsdale Academies. These schools, ideally, would maintain secular curriculums that interweave agricultural skills throughout the warmer months. In fact, templates promoted by the U.S. Green Building Council and The Center for Green Schools (spearheaded by Rachel Gutter) would be a smart adaptation for public, private, and charter schools alike. Any of these facilities could be either publicly-owned or privately-run…allowing more synergy via public-private partnerships. This would provide critical tools and resources for eliminating “food deserts” – the low-income communities (usually in urban or rural areas) where absence of grocery stores and farmers’ markets restricts their residents’ access to nutrient-rich diets.
And let’s not forget pollinator science. Entomology, for instance, is the study of insects and their role in our ecosystem. Our universities, colleges, and tech schools could benefit from more collaboration with schools that have already led the way in groundbreaking research (e.g. the Entomology Department at UC-Davis). Getting younger generations excited about biology, botany, and the natural sciences could go a long way toward ensuring that sustainable practices continue for future generations.
One golden opportunity for making these changes on a bipartisan basis is through the 2018 Farm Bill. U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow has been a leader in the promotion of urban farming by proposing the Urban Agriculture Act. This type of legislation would offer up more loans and grants for vertical farming, community gardens, soil testing, and composting. In 2016, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley released a draft version of the Pollinator Recovery Act – which would empower the USDA to open up new land and habitats for pollinators and implement better planting strategies to strengthen specific crops, while also funding technical support or economic incentives for producers who adopt pest control and monitoring programs.
Current lawmakers should make an effort to follow the examples of those who have allied themselves with these causes. Some of the more prominent representatives and senators who already lend strong support to such solutions include Chellie Pingree, Jim McGovern, Anna Eshoo, Chris Van Hollen, and Kirsten Gillibrand.
If we wish to turn hydroponics, aquaculture, and vertical farming into durable technology that won’t be cost-prohibitive, there has to be state and federal subsidization to make it happen. We need to shore up federal funds for the Organic Agriculture Research and Education Initiative (OREI) and the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI). The OREI supports scientific research in the quest for making organic standards more achievable. The SCRI focuses on funding research to make breeding, pest control, and technology more affordable based on individual crop needs.
Innovation and competition is great. Even better is creating a fairer playing field that, in the process, saves our food-based economy from collapse. If we limit federal grants (e.g. EQUIP) to small- and medium-sized facilities, then that would put pressure on the major players to discover their own groundbreaking methods. Similarly, we should bust the stranglehold that large agribusiness giants currently have as recipients of federal research funding and NIFA (National Institute of Food and Agriculture) programs.
ADD IT TO YOUR CAMPAIGN PLATFORM!
What more Democratic and Republican candidates should realize is that agricultural sustainability would be an extremely popular platform plank with constituents in virtually every state and district – because, after all, new infrastructure that results from it will inevitably generate even more job growth (short-term and long-term) nationwide. Oh, and also – everybody wants affordable groceries.
I understand how conservatives and libertarians generally prefer to limit the size and reach of the federal government. But healthy agriculture is in everyone’s best interest. And, unfortunately, if left to their own devices, the Big Ag giants aren’t going to do this out of the goodness of their hearts. To lead us onto a path of widespread self-sufficiency, federal support would reduce the risk factor for smaller producers in the present while boosting the economic vitality of the nation in the long run.
Sustainable agriculture intersects with (and spills over into) several other issue areas, in addition to job creation. If we stop relying on foreign countries for importing a majority of our produce, food prices can become more affordable when there are more U.S.-based competitors growing these commodities. Then, America will have greater leverage in future trade agreements. If nutritious foods become cheaper and more widespread, that will improve American diets – which helps to bring down long-term health care costs. The R&D that we invest in (for perfecting agricultural infrastructure) could also be applied to biofuels and other alternative forms of energy. All of this, holistically speaking, will contribute to managing the effects of climate change.
Critics and naysayers of my platform here will squawk that the technology for indoor agriculture isn’t 100% viable yet, on a grand scale. True – but if we don’t begin heavily investing in additional research that will perfect the technology (e.g. FarmBot machines) to get where it needs to be, we’ll continue to remain at Mother Nature’s mercy when it comes to growing food.
It certainly isn’t a simple task to balance the competing factors of free market competition, cheap food princes, and fair wages for producers. But we owe it to the American people to try. Let me leave you with Downey’s own prediction, in anticipation of a worst-case scenario:
“If bees disappear, we will still have food. We won’t have the variety. It won’t be affordable. It will definitely change our quality of life and change our choices.”
I don’t know about the rest of you…but I’d rather see such a change be for the better, not for the worse.
Featured image by StateofIsrael — Flickr.