By Raj Patel and Jim Goodman
The food system in the U.S. is holding together in the early weeks of the COVID crisis — aside from the price spikes that come with panic buying, the supply chain of commodity crops looks fairly solid. But an overabundance of commodity crops doesn’t solve our country’s hunger problems. And doubling down on this flawed system won’t just fail to fix hunger — it’ll spawn new disease.
America’s robust production of corn, wheat, soy, and meat comes at a financial, social, and ecological cost. Much of that cost was shouldered by farmers themselves. Before COVID, farmers faced debt at levels comparable to the 1980 farm crisis. In Nebraska, for instance, the average farm debt was $1.3 million in 2017. What this leverage paid for was a food system filled with expensive machinery, crops, and animals engineered for productive efficiency.
Look to fields or factory farms, and what you’ll find are concentrations of genetic uniformity. These monocultures eliminate natural diversity and vigor. They are terrific incubators both of profit and of disease; output has never been higher, and modern zoonotic diseases, from hepatitis E to methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), have their origins in our food system. By shunning nature’s tendency for interdependent diversity, we have gone all-in for economic profit based on millions of acres a few crops grown to feed millions of animals confined indoors, and we are asking for the next transfer of disease from animals to humans.
Rather than double down on an industrial system that will, inevitably, spawn new disease and compound it with hunger and climate change, we can and should do better.
In addition to creating farms that are petri dishes for disease, the modern food system needs a supply chain dependent on systemic exploitation. Farmworkers are exposed to horrific conditions without basic rights to organize or any means of someday owning their own land. Those farmworkers are right now at high risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus, with many living in…