The Problem with the Food System is It Works

And How to Break It

Sarah Mock


Source: Rose Interpreting

If you ever find yourself at a dinner party, trapped in a conversation about food or agriculture, it’s very fashionable to say something like;

“The problem is, our food system is broken.”

The problem with your problem is, it’s wrong.

The Food System in a Nut Shell

Farmers use seeds, water, sunlight, natural and chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and labor to produce plant and animal products. Those products are sold to wholesalers or retailers (or in rarer cases, directly to consumers) who use them to make food for humans or animals, fuel, or fiber. That food, fuel and fiber is sold to the end user, and waste products, generally, end up a landfill.

Source: Connecticut Food System Alliance

Seems simple enough, we put raw materials in, get value out, and bi-products are created here and there along the way — some beneficial, some harmful.

One important caveat — most food systems are not cycles, though some waste products, like animal manure and the occasional ton of compost, do make their way back into the production end of the machine.

This caveat is one of the many things people understand to be broken with the system; because farming can be a cycle, a closed loop where the necessary inputs, fertilizers, pesticides, water, even labor, are also outputs. A food system that fails to regenerate itself, as this argument goes, is doomed.

But does that mean it’s broken?

It could be that the globally powerful system that stocks our supermarkets year round with exotic produce, under pays hundreds of thousands of farmers and farm workers, and has contributed to an epidemic of diet-related diseases, simply hasn’t existed long enough to truly “break.” Maybe empty shelves, failed crops, and cripplingly high food prices are on the horizon, but as of today, grocery stores, restaurants, and American consumers continue to throw away massive amounts of cheap food.



Sarah Mock

Author of Farm (and Other F Words), buy now: Rural issues and agriculture writer/researcher. Not a cheerleader, not the enemy.