In the United States, the second-largest group of workers after retail workers is those working in restaurants. Farm workers, farmers, and food plant workers are the next groups and include thousands of workers. In short, the people who feed us are a huge part of the United States population.
The costs of food
Next to cars or other transportation and energy to heat and cool our buildings, how we produce and consume food has the greatest effect on the environment. Modern industrial agriculture uses a huge portion of all land on earth and pollutes water and air with its wastes and the chemicals and antibiotics sprayed on crops and fed to animals. Agriculture contributes between 20 and 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions directly and indirectly. Agriculture and fisheries combined are the biggest cause of biodiversity loss.
Organic agriculture helps reduce the impact of agriculture on both farm employees and the environment, but we need to take additional steps to assure that the farmers and farm workers are fairly paid and not exposed to chemicals from neighboring farms.
Studies have shown that people who consume primarily organic food are less likely to develop some cancers and other diseases. Unfortunately, subsidies to agriculture have not included adequate subsidies to make organic food cheaper for poor people.
The average American diet is not organic, but is high in subsidized meat, fat, and sugar which are thought to contribute to a high rate of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other diet-related diseases. Promoting a healthier diet would reduce both medical costs and environmental costs.
So what would happen if we developed a more sustainable food system? First, we would quit using resources at a rate faster than the Earth can replenish them. Second, we would be growing and purchasing our food in ways that promote adequate supplies of food for people, not using most of our grains for feeding animals or producing ethanol for cars. Third, we would pay fair wages for farmers, food processing plant workers, and farm workers. Fourth, we would care for animals in more humane ways.
At the same time, we would focus on making sure that our agriculture and fisheries do not harm the climate, water, and soil. We would produce more of our food locally so that so much of it did not become contaminated in transit or wrapped in plastics containing dangerous food contact materials like nanosilver or PFAS. That would help us greatly reduce food waste. If we start with organic agriculture, and also promote these more sustainable practices, then we will have a food system that is healthy for us, just for food workers, and kind to animals and the planet.