Any way you slice it, food plays a powerful role in shaping our health, the health of our natural environment, and the condition of the planet that our children will inherit. Food production uses more water and land than any other industry. In the United States, food producers use more than two-thirds of our precious freshwater supplies. The vast majority of our food is grown at an industrial scale, relying on intensive inputs of synthetic fertilizer and pesticides. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture is the single-largest source of pollution to the nation’s rivers and streams. Global-warming pollution from animals, manure, and nitrogen applied to farmland contributes approximately 136 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions every day.
But we all need affordable, healthful food. And done well, farming nourishes our bodies and the land, helps to stop urban sprawl, captures carbon in farm soils, provides essential habitat for wildlife, and strengthens our economy. NRDC’s scientists, advocates, lawyers, and communications specialists promote better farming and food-production practices by focusing on the following areas.
Raising animals for food puts an enormous strain on the health of our communities and the natural environment. NRDC is challenging factory farming’s addiction to antibiotics. Currently, more than 70 percent of all antibiotics are sold to the livestock industry, often fed routinely to animals to help them survive crowded, unsanitary conditions. This practice allows antibiotic-resistant bacteria to thrive and render essential medicines ineffective. NRDC helped pass a law in California—the first in the nation—curbing the use of these drugs. We’ve also launched consumer campaigns to persuade major food companies, like Foster Farms and Subway, to source antibiotic-free meat. In addition, we are pushing for more plant-based menus in the food service industry; we’ve launched the Grasslands Alliance to promote sustainable grazing; and we’re challenging pollution from industrial livestock facilities.
In 2014, NRDC illuminated a major opportunity to reduce massive amounts of land, feed, water, and energy: Stop wasting food. Our research found that as much as 40 percent of all the food grown in the United States just ends up in our landfills, where it creates methane, a potent global-warming gas. We successfully advocated for the EPA to adopt a national 50 percent food-waste reduction goal by 2030, and we’re now working with cities to develop model practices for implementation. We’ve partnered with the Ad Council to launch a national outreach campaign to change consumer practices. And we’ve catalyzed a study by Deloitte that provides a road map for major food companies to begin reducing waste in their supply chains.
NRDC has a long history of protecting humans and the environment from toxic pesticides. We helped pass the Food Quality Protection Act, the primary law regulating these chemicals, and have monitored the EPA’s implementation ever since. These efforts have resulted in a dramatic reduction of organophosphate pesticides, a class of chemicals that can cause permanent neurological damage in children. Now we’re expanding this work to help save bees and butterflies, both of which have been in severe decline in recent years. We petitioned the EPA to review and phase out the use of bee-killing neonic pesticides. And in court, we are challenging the approval of the next generation of herbicides that could both eliminate more habitat of the threatened monarch butterfly and pose risks to public health.
NRDC is also challenging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for failing to regulate thousands chemicals used in food manufacturing. Many of these chemicals are cleared as “safe” with no FDA review, yet some are endocrine disruptors or cancer-causing agents or can damage children’s developing brains. NRDC has petitioned the FDA to ban dangerous chemicals in food and overhaul its regulatory program.
Thriving, healthy soils can capture more carbon, reduce water needs, and prevent excess fertilizer from washing into rivers and streams. NRDC is working with industry leaders to reform federal crop insurance (the largest federal farm subsidy) to give farmers a discount when they adopt practices that improve soil health, thereby protecting the environment while also reducing their risks for crop loss. We are working to test a model insurance policy on 10 million acres. Our team also promotes soil-friendly farming practices through social media, conferences, and a Voices of the Soil media contest.
Local food systems
We know that strong regional food systems can help provide fresh food to nearby communities and schools, preserve threatened farmland, create innovative models of food sustainability, and foster green economic growth. We’re working to rebuild regional food distribution in the greater New York area, including advancing a wholesale farmers’ market in New York City’s South Bronx to dramatically increase the flow of local, sustainable food into the nation’s largest marketplace. NRDC lawyers are working on a model Farm to Foodbank to give New York farmers a tax credit for donating fresh fruit and vegetables. We have also partnered with Pace University School of Law to help give much-need legal help at the regional level to farmers, community groups, and food entrepreneurs. And we’re working with the Urban School Food Alliance to convert millions of Styrofoam trays to compostable products and make antibiotic-free chicken available in schools.
- Promoting better meat production and less meat consumption overall
- Reducing food waste
- Eliminating toxic contaminants from farm to fork
- Promoting climate-friendly farming methods
- Strengthening regional food systems