This year, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) budget is estimated at $146 billion. Conversely, the Department of Health and Human Services budget for 2021 is roughly $1.37 trillion. While there are complex factors that play a role in the appropriation of these funds, the message it sends couldn’t be easier to understand. The U.S. is fighting an expensive healthcare battle reactively, instead of proactively.
What people eat has a direct impact on their health. Today, and for the last several decades, the United States has chosen to spend significantly on treating health conditions, instead of allocating to try and prevent them. To shift the balance in the future, we need to fund a farming revolution and address the problem that’s coming to a head: the true cost of nutrition neglect.
It starts by looking at the way we grow food.
Today’s industrial farming practices have made it difficult to find nourishment. Industrial farming practices have taken a toll on the crops we’re growing, starting with the soil — which could carry grave implications for health and development across the country. “Poor soils can impede a nation’s progress to improve incomes and nutrition by increasing the likelihood of crop and livestock failures,” reads a 2016 report commissioned by the Barack Obama administration.
The report goes on to suggest, in detail, the need for regenerative farming practices, but its recommendations were ultimately tabled. Kickstarting regenerative agricultural practices requires both patience and funding. A growing group of regenerative farming advocates believe funding for sustainable USDA initiatives today will lead to a reduction in the need for HHS spending in the future. That is, if the USDA pushes for a shift back to heritage farming practices.
Industrialized farming has given way to monocropping, as well as broad use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. This, coupled with tilling practices, is causing significant soil depletion. As a result, we’re seeing less crop diversity in farm fields and crops that are more prone to blight, with yields lacking vitamin content consistent with a healthy soil microbiome.
Enacted as part of conservative farming practices to end the Dust Bowl, these techniques have remained since the 1930s as a stopgap measure. But that stopgap has dictated the evolution of industrial farming, and put us back on a path to repeat similar hardship. We need to exchange conservative farming practices for sustainable ones, going back to the principles of heritage farming.
These principles are well-established. Cover cropping to protect planting beds. Mulching with decomposing organic matter. Diverse crop rotations to restore the nutrient profile of soil. These practices date back centuries and are the keys to more sustainable soil.
The trajectory of U.S. farming isn’t on a sustainable track. As much as $30 billion of the appropriated funds for the USDA take the form of farm subsidies, and that number will only grow higher as farmers struggle to maintain and grow crop yields in depleted soil conditions. Embracing and funding regenerative practices today could tamp down on the need for subsidies in the future.
There’s also trade to consider. Agriculture is the United States’ largest export, accounting for $135 billion in 2020. To continue satisfying demand for these exports — and to protect against the growing trade deficit — pressure is on farmers to continue producing at a high level in years to come. The problem is, coupled with climate change, soil depletion is making it harder for farmers to sustain operations.
There’s inherent cost in soil depletion, as well. According to a USDA report on natural resource conservation published a decade ago (2010), “It is estimated that the total annual cost of erosion from agriculture in the USA is about US$44 billion per year.” It’s a number that’s growing, and will continue to devastate U.S. agriculture until there’s fundamental change to industrial farming.
All this goes without talking about the untold cost current agriculture practices have on our healthcare industry. It’s virtually impossible to estimate these figures, outside of broad generalities.
Poor diets incur healthcare costs as high as $50 billion each year. Obesity and the chronic conditions that come with it tack on another $147 billion annually, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Countless conditions linked to nutritional neglect only serve to add billions to the total. Each year, the United States spends more money on medical care for illnesses related to dietary deficiencies than on the entirety of agricultural appropriations.
Agriculture needs better funding and better practices to help build a sustainable future — one in which the cost of feeding people outstrips the medical care they need, and both are orders of magnitude lower than where they’ll end up if we continue on this path.
Image credit: Daiga Ellaby/Unsplash
Jennifer Maynard worked in the Biotech and Pharmaceutical specialty medicine areas for over 20 years. After putting two decades of her passion into changing people's lives through modern medicine, she felt her knowledge and experience would be better served focusing on "Food as Medicine." Even though progress has been made with medicine, the battle with chronic illness is being lost. In order to address this, she founded Greater Greens, a regenerative organic farm, as the first step to bringing this movement front and center and to help focus on the root of our health challenges. Once the farm was fully operational, she co-founded Nutrition for Longevity, a farm-to-fork meal kitting company that focuses on bringing nutritionally tailored meals to the masses direct from her farm.