The future of American food: A discussion between land and sea
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, goes the saying. Pre-2020, many people who produce this nation’s food might have argued that American agriculture and seafood was anything but broke. On land, the efficient American farmer grows more calories per person than just about any farmer anywhere on earth: U.S. farmers crank out more corn and beef than any nation in the world, are the No. 2 producer of soybeans, and rank in the top four nations for overall tonnage of wheat, pork, and chicken.
At sea, they’re no slouches either. The United States harvests 8 billion pounds of wild fish and shellfish yearly, putting it in a not-too-shabby fourth place globally. All this despite an aging agricultural and fishery workforce that has been losing labor to retirement year after year.
But in 2020, business-as-usual became unusual business. Trade disputes and COVID-driven disruption of international markets flattened sales of core U.S. commodities. This flattening came at a time when corn and soy prices had already dropped sharply off their 2010s highs. Today, American farmers get about half of what they got for a bushel of corn or beans a decade ago.
At sea, too, a tide of problems washed over American food producers in 2020. About 70% of fish in the United States is sold in restaurants. With those markets effectively shuttered, a major disruption rippled its way backward from diner to dock.
All this while, the conditions to farm and fish got tougher. In the last decade, average temperatures in the country’s agricultural heartland rose significantly and precipitation became wild and hard to predict. Meanwhile, at sea, the hypoxia area or dead zone in the continental United States’ most important fishing grounds in the Gulf of Mexico, at the receiving end of most of the nation’s agricultural runoff, grew by more than a third.
Now, as the country tries to find its bearings and producers survey the changed landscape, two seasoned American producers, one on land and one at sea, tell what they think the future holds for American food. Neither is a doomsayer, but both share a belief that a major rethink is in order. With the goal to feed Americans the healthiest food possible, while contributing the most toward profitable agriculture and fisheries, here is a boiled-down version of their thoughts.
On David Brandt’s farm in Fairfield County, Ohio, in mid-July, the temperature outside is 101°F., but Brandt wasn’t sweating it too hard. His soil temperature is steady at 87°F., while soil on conventional farms in the region roast at a withering 122°F. (Corn tends to shut down and go on the defensive when soil temps top 90°F.)
The reason for this difference, and for Brandt’s overall resilience in the face of 2020’s various crises, is that a long while back he decided to focus on cutting costs rather than boosting harvests. Beginning in 1971, Brandt started shifting his 900 acres from a standard till-and-sow, corn-on-soy rotation to one that puts soil health first.
“Behind corn we plant rye,” he says. “Then comes soy and then small grains and from small grains we go back to corn. We want to loosen that soil. We want our legume crops to catch as much atmospheric nitrogen as possible and put it in the root zone. With the ground covered, we eliminate soil loss to almost zero.”
Brandt does all this cover cropping and soil management not for some hazy hope of helping the environment, but because in the end it’s the best thing for the bottom line. Altogether, the combination of no-till and cover crops saves Brandt something like 60% of his fertilizer and other input costs.
“We are the exception,” Brandt says. “Most farmers are afraid of losing yield. We are not driven by yield – we are driven by cost and return on investment.”
Brandt’s fixation with cost reduction may be the thing that can help lead farmers out of their present quandary. While commodity prices often fall, cost of production nearly always increases. So, as Brandt sees it, even if farmers continue to get better yields out of their lands, the costs, in the end, can easily eat up whatever profits those increased yields might bring.
All of this does indeed bring a tremendous environmental benefit to ecosystems downstream from his farm, and Brandt looks at it as simple common sense.
“It’s in interest to all producers to keep soil on the farm. If we keep filling the Mississippi with sediment, how are we going to ship our crops to market?” Brandt points to the fact that the average Ohio farm loses 3 pounds of soil for every pound of soy beans they produce. “How long can we keep this up?” he asks.
So why aren’t more farmers in Ohio and throughout America’s corn and soy heartland pursuing a cost-saving rather than a yield-boosting strategy?
“It’s not easy to use cover crops,” Brandt explains. “The fields don’t look pretty. Farmers don’t like to see yellow cover crop plants in the field. Or weeds for that matter. For years we’ve been told we could not have one weed in the field and as far as I’m concerned, that’s wrong.”
But Brandt is hopeful that the tide is turning. “The big factor is education. We are getting more and more producers thinking about cover cropping and no-till mainly because the return on investment in business as usual has not been there. Commodities are in the toilet. Guys are strapped. And now, finally we are starting to see a lot of farmers making changes. Even if they just do one cover crop, rye for example – that saves one pass with herbicides.”
And then once they quit using tillage, Brandt adds, they see even more savings in terms of fuel. “The return they’ll see,” Brandt concludes, “is in the fall when they see what’s in the bank.”
About 1,100 miles south of David Brandt, Lance Nacio works the northern Gulf of Mexico with two vessels – one outfitted for shrimp, the other targeting reef fish like yellow edge grouper, snapper, and amberjack. Like Brandt, Nacio has been in the food production business for decades.
And like Brandt, Nacio has felt the bite of emphasizing big yields over efficiency. Every year right around this time, a hypoxia area, more commonly known as a dead zone, has been forming in the Gulf. The dead zone forms when water rich in nitrogen from fertilizers triggers algae blooms which in turn die and suck in oxygen when bacteria gobble it up. Last year the Gulf dead zone reached a record size of 6,952 square miles, bigger than the state of Connecticut.
“It’s consistently a problem,” Nacio says. “But last year we were really struggling. The fishing was horrible. The color of the water is the big indicator. When it’s green, that means trouble. Normally we can get out past that green into the blue. But last year everywhere we were going was green. We were really struggling to find places to fish.”
And just like farmers to the north who have huge outlays of cost before a single ear of corn goes through the harvester, Nacio has to put a lot of cash out before a single fish hits the deck. “I have to pay $75,000 to lease quota and then $8,000 on top of that in fish taxes. That’s more than $80,000 right off the top.”
The dead zone makes that off-the-top bite even bigger. “We should be able to shrimp close in. But when the dead zone hugs up against the shore, you can’t find shrimp to save your life. Oftentimes that means we have to make a 20-mile steam out to sea. That definitely adds to cost.”
True, fishermen got a slight break this past month when hurricane Hanna moved through the Gulf and mixed oxygen into normally hypoxic water, but the 2020 dead zone still ended up bigger than the state of Rhode Island.
And while Nacio is not one to cast aspersions at his fellow food producers, he increasingly feels exasperated by a situation where the nation seems to rob Peter to pay Paul. He thinks it doesn’t have to be that way.
“If agriculture can minimize the nitrogen runoff and we can get better water out of the Mississippi, it would help prevent the hypoxic zone and would create more life in the gulf. Normally fresh river water is good for the gulf and the health of estuaries. But what we don’t want is hypoxic water. We need fresh water to mix with saltwater – that creates the conditions where things grow. If they could clean the river, it would be a big help.”
But there’s another aspect to this robbing Peter/paying Paul dynamic that Nacio feels needs to be addressed that goes back to the emphasis on yields rather than good ag policy. Because, even as he feels the pinch from dead-zone-induced fisheries damage, Nacio is also crimped by competitors in Asia. Even though the U.S. controls more ocean than any country on earth, something like 80% to 90% of the fish and shellfish Americans eat is coming from abroad. A large portion of that foreign seafood is farmed in Asia. And what do farmers in Asia feed all of that shrimp and fish that they farm? Quite often American soy.
Asian producers further cut costs and make competing difficult by resorting to a number of different strategies that wouldn’t be allowed here in the U.S.
“We really need to level the playing field,” Nacio says. “We need to hold imports accountable. We need to regulate seafood from countries that use slave labor, banned substances, and antibiotics. There was even a story recently where shrimp coming from Ecuador was turned away because the packaging was infected with COVID.”
Speaking of COVID, the pandemic was just one more blow to Nacio’s bottom line. With restaurant orders coming from New Orleans and other big cities nearby grinding to a halt, Nacio has had to rethink distribution, pairing up with other small fishing operations elsewhere in the country to try to offer a direct-to-consumer model.
There is no shortage of food in America and no shortage of enthusiasm to bring healthy things to eat to American plates. But both David Brandt and Lance Nacio agree that the current way we’re treating land and sea has to be changed if we’re to get the most benefit for the most Americans. Those changes range from things David Brandt is already doing like using cover crops, limiting tilling, and managing water precisely on his farm.
Changes could also include thinking about what we grow, what we export, and what we import. Do corn and soy have to be the only two crops grown by so many American farmers? Could we start to think about diversifying the agricultural portfolio of the heartland? As temperatures rise, so many more things could be grown in Ohio and elsewhere that currently are deficit items in the American trade portfolio. Fruits, vegetables, and a range of specialty crops could easily work in Midwestern soil.
At sea, do we have to continue to be a seafood debtor, importing so much shrimp and fish from China and the rest of the world? Could we start to treat our home waters better and give American fishermen a leg up in the market so that they could sell their products to their fellow Americans in a fair economic environment?
Could we give American seafood a further helping hand by speeding American fish to the American consumers through new models of distribution and direct-to-consumer methods that Nacio and a few other people are just beginning to employ?
Yes, we can. The hard truth about American food has been laid bare by the multiple crises of 2020. Unfortunately, it is broken. But fortunately, we can fix it.
Note: See the new book by Paul Greenberg here.