Friends of the Earth United States is working to transform agriculture in the US and their food systems— from toxic and chemical intensive to healthy and ecologically regenerative; from corporate controlled to democratically governed; and from a system that embodies the deepest inequities in society to one that advances justice and fulfills the needs of all eaters now and in the future.
What agriculture in the US looks like
For decades, the US food and farming systems have been directed towards a narrow goal: to produce as many calories as possible as cheaply as possible, whatever the cost to people and the planet. This has led to a toxic, energy-intensive and highly unjust model of food production, heavily reliant on pesticides, GMOs and factory farming. Despite being one of the world’s wealthiest countries, at least 15% of the population doesn’t have access to sufficient healthy food, and 1 in 8 children go hungry each day. At the same time, around 40% of adults live with obesity, the other side of malnutrition.
Each link of the US food supply chain is dominated by a handful of companies, from seeds, agrichemicals and fertilisers to supermarkets and the products they sell. This level of corporate control is bad news for eaters, who face fewer choices and higher prices, as well as farmers and workers, who face low pay and dangerous work conditions. The industrial production model is also bad news for the planet, as intensive use of water, land, animals and fossil fuels are key drivers of the biodiversity and climate crises.
Transitioning to organic food systems in the US
“We all have the right to clean, organic food — that is a human right,” said one mother in a peer-reviewed study co-authored by Friends of the Earth US. The study showed that the US population is exposed to many toxic pesticides in the food they eat and that an organic diet can quickly and dramatically reduce that exposure. Another co-authored study found that US agriculture is 48 times more toxic to insect life nowadays than it was before before neonicotinoid insecticides were first sold in the 1990s. While most (75%) of the world’s most nutritious crops rely on pollination, 40% of insect pollinators are now on the brink of extinction.
Friends of the Earth US led a multi-year campaign which got more than 140 garden retailers to commit to phasing out these toxic insecticides in the plants they sell. As part of a wider movement for change, they have worked to ban toxic pesticides in several states, and are leading efforts to overhaul broken national pesticide laws and support farmers in transitioning to ecological agriculture. Their ‘bee-friendly food retailer’ campaign has moved 12 of the top 25 largest US food retailers to establish pollinator protection policies that aim to reduce toxic pesticide use and shift toward ecological agriculture.
Organic farming supports pollinators species while improving soil health, water quality, biodiversity and rural economies. It also helps to protect the farmers, farmworkers and rural communities that suffer disproportionate impacts from exposure to toxic pesticides and that have the right to safe workplaces and communities.
Tackling GMOs in the US
For more than three decades, Friends of the Earth US has been a leading advocate for safety assessments, precautionary regulation and oversight and labelling of all organisms and products derived from genetic engineering. They are holding the line against the proliferation of virtually unregulated and risky genetically engineered products in the environment – such as genetically engineered (GE) mosquitoes and gene-silencing pesticides – and on plates – like GE crops engineered to withstand heavy use of toxic agrichemicals, GE salmon and other GE animals engineered to fit into crowded, polluting and inhumane factory farms, and GE proteins.
More recent genetic engineering techniques and products (including gene editing and synthetic biology) pose threats to ecosystems, agriculture, public health, and farmers’ livelihoods around the world. In the US, genetically engineered products are released into the environment and enter the food system without being properly assessed for environmental or health risks, and are predominantly not labelled. Friends of the Earth US provides information to the public, organisations, farmers, policymakers, food companies, retailers and restaurants about the risks of new genetically engineered ingredients. Working with other organisations, they secured commitments from the largest food retailers to not carry GMO salmon. They have also been organising with frontline community members in the Florida Keys and California’s Central Valley to block the release of GE mosquitoes, the first genetically engineered insect approved for mass release, which sets a precedent for use of GMO insects in agriculture.
Calling for truly climate-friendly food and agriculture in the US
In recent years, attention has turned to soil as a solution for climate change. Companies and wealthy governments, like the US, looking for ways to fulfil their ‘net zero’ emissions pledges, now tout the possibility of sequestering carbon in soils using specific farming techniques.
However, soil carbon markets raise serious environmental justice concerns for communities, small-scale farmers and farmers of colour, while undermining efforts to truly reduce carbon emissions at source. A recent report by Friends of the Earth US – Big Ag Plans to Use Carbon Markets, Farmer Data to Tighten Stranglehold on Food System – has challenged the environmental integrity of carbon markets and called for the government to support farms in adopting ecologically-regenerative, climate-resilient agriculture, including agroecological methods.
Their ‘Climate-friendly food’ campaign advocates for a just transition away from factory farming toward a sustainable level of pasture-based animal production and ecologically-regenerative production of climate-friendly, plant-based foods. They helped introduce national legislation to support plant-based food in schools and in California, Friends of the Earth provides support to more than 75 school districts to serve more healthy, organic, vegetarian food to children.
At the national level, they call for stronger regulations that hold giant animal agribusinesses accountable for their harms to the environment and communities and work to shift public development finance away from factory farms towards more sustainable, agroecological food production. In 2021, they led a Stop Financing Factory Farming coalition effort to successfully cancel a planned loan to Marfrig Global Foods, the second largest beef producer that is directly implicated in wide scale deforestation, human rights abuses and land grabbing in Brazil. They also campaigned against two other public development bank agribusiness loans in Latin America.
Working together with groups around the world and grassroots communities in the US, Friends of the Earth is holding the line against harmful GMOs, soil carbon markets and intensive factory farming, whilst pursuing ambitious work to realise agroecology and the right to food in the US.