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How We Can Reconnect and Regenerate Our Failing Food Systems - The YEARS Project

How We Can Reconnect and Regenerate Our Failing Food Systems

The Texas sun beats down on my backyard in the summer, and nothing grows better in that dry heat than habaneros and jalapeños. I remember my dad bringing me out to harvest the chiles that we’d turn into salsas and jams in our kitchen. Over time, the garden turned into an experiment with my brother's garlic that never sprouted and the lime-less lime tree that was sheltered inside the house during winter and left a layer of its leaves on our living room floor. Although not always fruitful, our backyard garden gave us more than we ever asked for.


That’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to seeing where my food is grown. My family, like most people in the United States, shops mainly at supermarkets where food can travel an average of 1,500 miles before touching our hands. Perpetually stocked shelves and endless aisles give only the illusion of security, because in reality we are standing on the precipice of a global food crisis. 


Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture, only four corporations control 75% of the world’s grain trade, one-third of the earth’s soils are currently degraded, and the number of severely food-insecure people in the world has doubled in the past two years. We are living within a system that has failed us.


As a child, long before learning the extent of these failing systems, I dreamt of becoming a farmer with acres of land full of frolicking cows. Nowadays, I see that life as a farmer would come with harsh realities and that my dreams were as naive as they were idyllic. 


As an average farmer in the United States, the government would pressure me to use all of my land to grow only my most profitable crop. Monocropping would strip the nutrients from my soil, forcing me to use chemical pesticides and fertilizers that harm the local ecosystems. The constant uncertainty of the weather and the unreliability of market prices would be mentally exhausting. Even with decades of investment, my soil could end up degraded and my farm left vulnerable to natural disaster. Seeking a better future, my children will move into the city and my grandchildren will never know where their food comes from.


Most of us aren’t farmers, but that doesn’t exclude us from the consequences of our failing food systems. Our sustenance is defenseless against political and economic waves at home and abroad. In many communities, it is rare to find fresh produce at the market or have any access to a healthy meal. The mere existence of these food deserts is paradoxical in a world where we grow enough food to feed everyone. Global conflict, climate change, and inequality exacerbate the problems within these important systems. The current war in Ukraine tells us that if essential exports are blocked, many countries must declare food shortages. Droughts, floods and increasing temperatures are decreasing crop yields and increasing hunger everywhere. And most of the world’s poorest people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods yet are paid pennies for their labor.


Unfortunately, cooking leisurely and eating joyfully feel like luxuries in the era of agribusiness. Food is how we share our lives together. It impacts our cultural identity, our relationships with friends and family, and our understanding of our own bodies. Food is a necessity for survival, yet it is commodified for profit. We cannot go on like this. In the same way that the first agricultural revolution allowed us to form the basis for civilization, a modern agricultural revolution will allow us to sustain these civilizations long into the future. 


In our rural communities, we need to reacquaint ourselves with the ancestral agricultural knowledge we have passed down for millenia. Indigenous communities should work closely with our farmworkers to meld traditional practices with contemporary science. Farms will house a diversity of crops that work together to reintroduce nutrients and breathe new life into deteriorated soil. Livestock will move in harmony with the rotation of crops, providing manure that will reduce the need for chemical fertilizers. Neighbors can share seeds from indispensable crops to foster greater food security throughout their regions. The story of our average farmer in the United States will become one of abundance, but in order to succeed, this revolution will need to spread beyond our farms. 


Our cities have the potential to bring food cultivation into the most densely-populated areas in the world. Food travels between multiple cities and passes through many hands before arriving on your plate, but what if there was always a garden within arm’s reach? Every abandoned lot, every unused rooftop, every empty wall could be converted into a green space. People who have never stepped foot on a farm before will have access to fresh grown produce, and those spaces will become the hearts of the communities they serve. Championing urban agriculture would also increase the availability and affordability of food for cities’ most vulnerable communities. 


Finally, revolutionizing our food systems must begin in our own homes. It’s reimagining the space in our backyards to create three-dimensional, layered, complex food forests. It’s a dad showing his daughter how he makes homemade salsa from homegrown chiles. It’s the smell of cookies in the oven and the feel of flour on your hands. It’s about coming to the table and meeting each other there in friendship and generosity. 


If you are a living, breathing, eating human on this planet, you have a stake in the future of our food systems. There are many resources to learn more about these problems and their solutions, such as the limited-series podcast Hot Farm and the Eating Our Way to Extinction documentary. More importantly, there are already passionate people putting in tireless effort towards regenerative agriculture and food justice everywhere. You can find them working for organizations like the Agricultural Justice Project and the Cooperative Food Empowerment Collective. Ten thousand years ago, humans domesticated plants for the first time. Today, we must fight to preserve this connection to the land and what it provides for us.