e spoke with Environmental Working Group’s Scott Faber on agriculture policy and the impact of small-scale farming on sustainability.
GreenLeaders DC: In the U.S., there has been a surge in locally based food production, particularly organic. What’s driving this and what does it mean for smaller, local farmers?
Scott Faber: Consumers have never been more interested in our food choices. We want to know not simply what’s in our food, but who made it, where it was made, and how it was made. We’re really in an unparalleled era of food democracy and the explosive growth of organic is just one part of that. People also want to get to know the people behind the food we eat and what impact that has on our health. More people recognize that food is medicine and that what we eat has enormous impacts on the cost of health care and health outcomes overall. For these reasons, I think there’s a big opportunity for farmers to market directly to consumers, which ultimately helps farmers retain more of the income through localized food production and distribution. But at the end of the day, the desire of consumers to know more about their food will have impacts regardless of at what scale the food is produced – whether its large or small farms, local or global. And that will favor farmers that adopt sustainable and organic practices.
GreenLeaders DC: What does this surge mean in policy terms? Is legislation supportive of this movement?
Scott Faber: I believe the farm bill was really a missed opportunity, but I also think that as more and more people become more interested in how their food is grown and demand a place at the table, as trillion dollar bills like the farm bill are written, it’s inevitable that you’ll see a shift in some of the decisions that are being made. One big challenge is awareness of the multiple impacts that agriculture has. More people are more concerned about their health and see the connection with food. But I don’t think a lot of people have really made the connection between how our food is grown and the related impacts on other factors like species extinction, air quality, pesticide use, and many other factors. You’ll see more awareness in the coming years as people increasingly buy organic and more voices are heard about the way we produce food now, and what some the more sustainable alternatives are.
Organic farming at this point is not so much a political movement, but a social shift. Today, it’s never been easier in our history to build a healthy diet. In an average supermarket you have about 40,000 different food choices. So increased awareness about how food is made along with all these choices is driving a lot of the consumer decision making at the point of sale. Whether that social movement turns into a political movement is still hard to tell. One thing we’re doing here is keeping track of legislators’ votes on food-related policy. We believe this will help people make voting decisions based on whether a legislator is supportive of our food values and help develop political capital around organic farming.
GreenLeaders DC: What is the future outlook for the small-scale agriculture space? What challenges do they face?
Scott Faber: I think in general there will be more demand for smaller, localized farming. One challenge those groups face is that they have yet to develop a political voice in Washington, DC. And while they do have great champions like Congresswoman Chellie Pingree or Senator Sherrod Brown, they haven’t yet developed enough political capital to cause big shifts in how the trillion dollars in the farm bill is allocated every five years. There’s another challenge in that small and local doesn’t necessarily mean sustainable. So it’s important that those small farmers be able to take steps and demonstrate that they are using less fertilizer, reducing runoff, and other things so they can protect the integrity of the organic brand.
GreenLeaders DC: Demography is also an issue for agriculture. How do you see population shifts affecting farming?
Scott Faber: This is an interesting issue and it remains to be seen how it will impact the development of farming. According to the latest census the average age of a farmer continued to rise. But on the flip side, there are more and more young people, minorities, and women getting into agriculture than at any time in modern history. So the face of farming is shifting at the entry point.
GreenLeaders DC: There have been some media reports of professionals and other non-traditional farmers going into organic agriculture as a way to “get back to the land”. Is this a trend?
Scott Faber: I think probably you have in every generation a certain number of people who reject city living and decide to go and be farmers. I’m not sure if that’s happening more or less than it used to, but I do get the sense that consumers are more and more educated about their food choices. This is something that’s been tested and we can really demonstrate. Consumers are not just looking at the facts panel on what they’re buying, but are really asking who made this, how was it made, and what’s in it, in a way they never have before. And that’s very exciting.
GreenLeaders DC: How much of an impact can innovative approaches to farming, such as rooftop gardens and urban farming, make on how we source and consume food?
Scott Faber: Whether or not urban farming, rooftop gardens, and other approaches to agriculture will have a significant impact – that’s something we’ll just have to wait and see. Right now, we import a lot of the food that we buy and that’s a good thing. Other places can produce food more cheaply than we can and overall it contributes to the choice we have and hence to a more balanced and healthy diet. But because we source our food literally from all over the world, it’s important that we have standards in place to ensure that, wherever the food comes from, it’s produced in a sustainable manner. Those are some of the big, important, global choices we need to make.
Vice President of Government Affairs, Environmental Working Group
Scott Faber leads a team working to improve food and farm legislation, chemicals policy and a host of other issues important to EWG and its supporters. Prior to joining EWG, Scott was vice president for federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, where he spearheaded efforts to enact the Food Safety Modernization Act, which sets new food safety standards for food manufacturers and farmers. From 2000 to 2007, he was a food and farm policy campaign manager for the Environmental Defense Fund, leading efforts to reform farm policies in the 2002 and 2008 farm bills. From 1993 to 2000, Scott was a senior director for public policy for American Rivers. A native of Massachusetts, Scott holds a J.D. From Georgetown University Law Center and lives in Washington, D.C.