Thursday, July 31, 2014

Common ground

By Eric Sannerud

Note:  We know Eric through our connection with a remarkable group of farmers, philosophers, economists, geneticists, innovators, writers, both academic and not, who share a concern for how we humans are mismanaging our place in the biosphere, and how we might make it better.  Eric describes himself as a farmer, thinker, and entrepreneur in Ham Lake, Minnesota. He is the Director of Sandbox Center for Regenerative Entrepreneurship and a member of the Minneapolis Hub of the Global Shapers. Connect with him on Twitter @ericsannerud.   Here are his thoughts:

As a 23 year-old American farmer who studies the US food system from the field I have a unique perspective on the serious challenges it faces. From drainage tiles that evacuate nutrient laden water to the nearest public water source, to obesity rates that cost untold lives, livelihoods, and money, the US food system is badly in need of regeneration.

Source: Wikipedia

Food and health policy in the United States.
In the United States food policy is a collection of local and national priorities that concern the supply of food. US food policy sets supports for certain crops that lead to a higher supply (and therefore lower price) of these crops in the market. Crops that are insured by the US government, against too much rain or too much drought, for example, such as corn, soy, and wheat, are more attractive to farmers than “non-insurable” crops, leading to greater production of insured crops.

United States Health policy is a collection of state and national regulations meant to minimize occupational and recreational dangers and to improve health. Seat belts,, the newest iteration of the government recommended diet, FDA regulations, and food labeling mandates are examples of health policy. The intended purpose of many of these regulations, as they relate to food, is to educate consumers to make informed decisions about what they eat. MyPlate identifies proper serving sizes for Americans (though it is not without criticism1). Food labels provide even, consistent criteria for comparing two different items (even if less than half2 of Americans read them).

The trouble is this...
On one hand we have food policies, such as government crop insurance, that encourage environmentally damaging fence row to fence row crop production, or government support for drain tile, drainage systems for fields that shuttle nutrient rich runoff to the nearest water body to be rushed downstream. On the other hand are well-meaning health policies. One can imagine that in the minds of the crafters of health policy each consumer carefully reads the food label on each product, compares the serving size of their meals against the MyPlate recommendations, and eats just the right amount of calories for their BMI each day. Real life food decisions are more complex and price is a big factor in purchasing. Price is where food policy gets involved. Government support makes certain crops cheap. These cheap crops can be used to create cheap food products (corn into chips and soda, for example). But chips and soda are shunned by health policy, and do not have healthy nutrition labels or a formal home on MyPlate.

Due to this disconnect between food policy and health policy the US food system is malfunctioning. A food system that creates historic rates of obesity3 while continuously exploiting the resources humans require for life, soil4 and water5, requires change. However, since the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, any efforts made, positive or negative, will be hindered by inefficiencies and ineffectiveness.

There is no one elegant solution to reducing the negative effects of such disconnected policies. Anyone claiming to have a trump card is lying: GMOs will not solve all of our problems, neither will organic production nor sin taxes on fizzy drinks and new government serving size suggestions. When dealing with interconnected systems solutions require a full deck of answers.

Three cards to add to the deck
1. Regenerating Health
US consumers shop with their wallets while health policy targets their minds. Health policy that acts on this fact will be moving in the right direction. The question for the discerning health policy strategist then is how to make healthy food price competitive?

One argument that I find persuasive as a low-paid, full-time change maker is the prudence of home cooking. Too often on the run I need food that is grab and go. Frozen burritos at the store cost me $2.00 each, I can make similar quality, though I must say, far tastier, burritos at home for just $.75.

A more aggressive strategy than home cooking promotion is artificially adding cost to unhealthy food. The reasoning goes that if that 76oz soda costs $5.00 instead of $1.00 less people will imbibe. Unfortunately, according to a recent US Supreme Court ruling all Americans have the right to drink cheap soda.6

One inventive way that communities across the United States are improving the cost competitiveness of healthy food is by offering “bonus bucks” to Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT), government food support, purchases. Spend $20 of EBT at a participating farmers market and get $5 additional “market bucks” good for any fresh produce at the market.

2. Regenerating Land
More healthy food in the market will make healthy food cheaper and more accessible. A benefit of coordinated food and health policy is an increase in the overall supply of healthy food.

Farm fields: Wikipedia

For starters, imagine if US food policy aligned what farmers were incentivized to grow with what health policy encourages Americans to consume. The landscapes of rural America, and the tables of all Americans, could change drastically. This map7, by Emily Cassidy at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, shows the caloric efficiency of crop production across the world. Caloric efficiency is the ratio of calories produced on a landscape to the number of produced calories consumed directly by humans. Developed countries producing commodities show horrendous caloric efficiency. Globally just 41% of calories produced are consumed by humans. According to Cassidy, maximizing caloric efficiency could feed an additional 4 billion people. In the US, food policy structures that support big commodity production could be amended to support crops, meat, and production methods of higher caloric efficiency including growing more crops for direct human consumption and more caloric efficient animal proteins such as chicken and fish.

Photo by Eric Sannerud

Private actors have their own part to play in addressing this disconnect. Non-governmental actors can work to aggregate and add scale to local food systems: decreasing prices of the freshest produce by harvesting efficiencies of scale.

Photo by Eric Sannerud

Two up and coming projects, Urban Oasis in St.Paul, Minnesota and New Moran in Burlington, Vermont, are examples of private sector innovation. By serving as aggregation, processing, and distribution hubs for local farmers these projects can increase the scale of healthy local food systems.

3. Regenerating Governance
Solutions also exist in state and local governments that can induce dialogue between government food and health policy makers.

At the state level food policy councils are popping up across the nation. These food policy councils are often created with the express purpose of increasing dialogue between state departments of agriculture, natural resources, and health. The Iowa Food Systems Council is one of the most longstanding and studied State food councils.

City level food councils are also developing. Similar to the state level councils these organizations are made up of a diverse group of stakeholders from across the food system including farmers, nutritionists, academics, and entrepreneurs. In Minneapolis, Minnesota “Minneapolis Homegrown” is a food policy council made up of appointed community members who serve an advisory role to the elected city council on food and health policies.

Hand, eye coordination
Food and health policies in which the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing are only effective at continuing the failing status quo. At their best, food policy attempts to tackle resource issues in food production while health policy encourages healthy grocery store purchases. Discontinuity contributes to the symptomatic nature of present day solutions and thinking. A focus on symptomatic solutions leaves the underlying disease untouched. In order to cure the cause the US needs a new coordination between food and health policy. Thankfully, there are many luminaries across public, private, and government sectors who understand the underlying problem and are generating bold ideas to address it. 

1 The Nutrition Source. (2014): Healthy Eating Plate vs. USDA’s MyPlate. Harvard School of Public Health [online]. -URL:

2 The NPD Group. (2014, Feb 27): U.S. Consumers’ Interest in Reading Nutrition Facts Labels Wanes as Time Goes On, Reports NPD. NPD Group [online]. -URL:

3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012): Overweight and Obesity, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [online]. - URL:

4 Lang, S. (2006, Mar 20): ‘Slow, insidious’ soil erosion threatens human health and welfare as well as the environment, Cornell study asserts, by Cornell University [online]. - URL:

5 Bielle, D. (2008, Mar 14): Fertilizer Runoff Overwhelms Streams and Rivers, in Scientific American [online]. - URL:

6 Klepper, D. (2014, Jun 26): Drink Up NYC: Ban on Big Sodas Canned, in ABC News [online]. -URL:

7 Cassidy, E. (2013): Hotspots of inefficiency Mapping the difference between crop production and food calorie delivery. Institute on the Environment [online]. -URL:


Anonymous said...

"Due to this disconnect between food policy and health policy the US food system is malfunctioning.
There is no one elegant solution to reducing the negative effects of such disconnected policies."

The problem is even bigger. It is that USA does not have a society. What this country has is a bad and centralized version of legalist system that failed in China 2500 years back.

Any solution, therefore, will come through decentralization and break-down of the country. The question this article needs to ask is what will happen to their farming system after the country breaks into parts and safety disappears.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comment! I have some pragmatic questions:

- Should the USA have "a society"?
- If we had one what should it look like?
- What are the losses associated with one society?
- I struggle to understand how China's 2,500 year old legalist system is substantially similar to ours to merit a direct comparison.
- I think it is a big assumption that the country will break into decentralized regions. What trends or evidence is there to support this future?