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Food System Primer

Food Production

Eating… is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.

– Wendell Berry

From crop production to fisheries, food production of all varieties has attracted its fair share of both praise and criticism. Despite many measurable accomplishments, the prevailing forms of agriculture are associated with a myriad of public health and ecological harms. Furthermore, much of the food we produce is either wasted, linked to diet-related illness, or out of reach for food-insecure populations without consistent means to acquire it.  

For all of the flaws in our food system, however, agriculture is foundational to our civilization. The U.S. food production system, for example, together with imports supplies over 500,000 metric tons of food daily, or 3.8 pounds per U.S. citizen.2 More than just a technological marvel, agriculture’s contributions afford much of the population (but not all) the luxury of giving little or no thought toward where the next meal will come from, enabling a society that can pursue the arts, sciences, and other aspects of the human experience. For more than 10,000 years, agriculture and culture have been intertwined.

Our challenge now is not how to dismantle our current system of food production, but how to help it evolve such that it better protects and promotes the public’s health, and preserves or even enhances natural resources. Given the complexity and dynamic nature of agriculture and our food system as a whole, no one-size fits all approach can achieve these goals. Rather, a range of evidence-based approaches is needed—combining traditional wisdom with current science—to ensure a healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system for all people, at all times.

1. Berry W. The Pleasures of Eating. In: What Are People For?. New York: North Point Press; 1990.
2. USDA Economic Research Service. Food Availability (Per Capita) Data System. 2013.