We Ranked All 50 States from Farm to Fork. Why We Bothered—and a Taste of Our Takeaways
By Marcia Delonge
Recently, some fellow data geeks and I spent (quite a lot of) time ranking all 50 states on the health and sustainability of their food systems, from soil to spoon.
We went through the trouble for a few reasons. First, as you may have heard in bits and pieces, the state of our farms, our food supply and our dietary health is not good—globally, nationally, regionally and likely even in your neighborhood. As all these things are interrelated, we wanted to dig into the data to better understand what's going on. Second, when it comes to food systems, we believe that the U.S. can do better. And, since innovative solutions are already popping up across the country, highlighting these as models may be key to building a healthy, sustainable and just world. Finally—call us crazy—but we just love data and (yes) food systems.
What's the Fuss About the Food System?
Before explaining what we did, let me refresh your memory about some of the most worrisome food system trends. Globally, you likely know that with population growth, climate change and 11 percent of the world facing hunger, pressures on food supplies and natural resources are intense. And although there's growing dialogue around transformative solutions to these intertwined challenges, the United States isn't exactly leading the way.
In the past year, we as a country fell squarely in the "also ran" category in a Food Sustainability Index; the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that our public agricultural R&D funding has been losing ground; and we withdrew from the Paris Agreement, which addresses the growing threat of climate change (with serious implications for agriculture, and maybe also the nutritional quality of our food).
But you don't have to look beyond our borders to see signs of trouble. US farms are disappearing, rural communities are struggling, policy debates are putting farmers and eaters under stress, the food system includes some of the worst employers in the country, the Gulf of Mexico dead zonecontinues to be huge, and so on. Clearly, we need to seek solutions, but where to begin?
The Not-So-Secret Ingredients in Our Scorecard
With an eye toward opportunities, we set off to capture and crunch the numbers to provide a snapshot of the US food system. To this end, we delved into data dealing with different pieces of the problem, including farming practices, labor conditions, water quality, public health, and more. We explored data sources such as the USDA, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Census Bureau.
While we can't possibly claim to have uncovered everything, we searched until we felt we had a critical mass of information representing food systems from coast to coast. With data for 68 indicators, we looked for patterns and potential (read more about our methods). We aimed to standardize data to compare states with both similarities and differences (natural resources, geographies, histories, cultures, populations, etc.). Finally, we grouped data into categories representing core aspects of the food system, and we synthesized these to get a sense of which states are leading the way.
The Report? A Mixed Bag
All in all, our analysis revealed both strengths and weakness of U.S. food systems, distributed all across the country. To learn more and see where your state falls in the rankings—with maps, charts and stories—you should check out our interactive scorecard. Here, I'll just offer a flavor for our findings:
- Action abounds: On the plus side, we found that different states rank better on different aspects of food systems, meaning that all states have a role to play in leading the way to a better future. From Alaska (with a smaller ecosystem footprint from its farms) to Wyoming (with farm production supporting relatively healthy diets), and California (boasting stronger farmer-to-eater infrastructure) to Maryland (a role model for conservation agriculture), states from sea to sea show strengths.
- Bright spots: In more good news, we discovered brilliant bright spots, even in states ranking lower in some aspects of our food system scorecard. For example, the Chillinois Young Farmers Coalition is devoted to improving the outlook of farming in Illinois, and Practical Farmers of Iowa has had a big hand in the recent surge of cover crop adoption—and associated conservation benefits—throughout that state.
- Costly consequences: While our focus was on opportunities, our analysis also exposed some of the dangerous consequences of our current conditions, from climate change contributions to water quality challenges to health outcomes and inequities. It's also important to note that we ranked states against one another, not against some hypothetical ideal, so even top-ranking states have lots of room for improvement.
- Data limitations: In several cases, the ideal data we were seeking wasn't available, because it either simply didn't exist, or was difficult to access at the scales we needed. To really get a holistic understanding of the food system—one that measures needs and progress—we need more public, accessible, and transparent data.
Fighting for Food Systems That Fare Better
If we want a food system that we can all be proud of—one that is healthy and equitable for farmers, laborers, eaters and the environment—we have a ways to go. Fortunately, however, our new analysis revealed a lot of bright spots worth building on.
With farm bill season in full force, there's no better time to protect and build up the programs and investments that help make positive change possible. The draft House farm bill, which failed to pass last month, likely would have had a negative impact on food systems across the country due to its utter failure to invest in healthy food access. However, just last week, Senate leaders released their proposal for a bipartisan farm bill, which defends and even boosts many critical initiatives, such as those that support nutrition, regional economies, beginning farmers, and sustainable agriculture research. While it's clear there's a lot of work ahead, investments like these can give us confidence that we're heading in the right direction—so raise your voice and urge your senators to pass a farm bill that brings us one step closer to a food system, from farm to fork, that we can be proud of.
Marcia Delonge is a senior scientist in the Food & Environment Program.
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Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to ban some of the most toxic pesticides currently in use in the U.S. D-Keine / E+ / Getty Images
By Jake Johnson
Democrats in the House and Senate on Tuesday introduced sweeping legislation that would ban some of the most toxic pesticides currently in use in the U.S. and institute stronger protections for farmworkers and communities that have been exposed to damaging chemicals by the agriculture industry.
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BP, the energy giant that grew from oil and gas production, is taking its business in a new direction, announcing Tuesday that it will slash its oil and gas production by 40 percent and increase its annual investment in low-carbon technology to $5 billion, a ten-fold increase over its current level, according to CNN.
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By Alex Thornton
The Australian government has announced a A$190 million (US$130 million) investment in the nation's first Recycling Modernization Fund, with the aim of transforming the country's waste and recycling industry. The hope is that as many as 10,000 jobs can be created in what is being called a "once in a generation" opportunity to remodel the way Australia deals with its waste.
Waste Mountain<p>The need for a dramatic increase in Australia's recycling capacity pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic. <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-27/where-does-all-australias-waste-go/11755424" target="_blank">Australians create approximately 67 million tons of waste a year</a>, and like in many wealthy countries, much of that was sent overseas. That all changed when China announced it was <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/china-has-banned-foreign-waste-so-whats-the-future-of-world-recycling" target="_blank">banning the import of a huge range of foreign waste</a> and recyclables. Soon <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/malaysia-flooded-with-plastic-waste-to-send-back-some-scrap-to-source" target="_blank">other countries followed suit</a>, and Australia was forced to look for alternative solutions.</p>
Biggest exporters of plastic. Statista
Waste Export Ban<p>Australia has adopted a strategy of taking responsibility for its own waste. Starting in January 2021, it is phasing in <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/waste-export-ban" target="_blank">bans on the export of different forms of waste</a>. By mid 2024, Australia's home-grown recycling industry will have to deal with an extra 650,000 tons of waste plastic, paper, glass and tires.</p><p>"As we cease shipping our waste overseas, the waste and recycling transformation will reshape our domestic waste industry, driving job creation and putting valuable materials back into the economy," federal environment minister Sussan Ley said in a <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">statement to Reuters</a>.</p>
Timeline for Australia's waste export ban. Australian Government
Trash Into Treasure<p>The benefits to the environment of boosting recycling rates are well known – less landfill, less plastic in our ocean, reduced need for virgin materials, and lower carbon emissions. The Recycling Modernization Fund initiative aims to divert more than 10 million tons of waste from landfill, part of an <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/publications/national-waste-policy-action-plan" target="_blank">overall strategy to reduce the total waste generated per person by 10%</a>, and push <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/7381c1de-31d0-429b-912c-91a6dbc83af7/files/national-waste-report-2018.pdf" target="_blank">Australia's total resource recovery rate from 58% in 2017</a> to 80% by 2030.</p><p>But like many countries, Australia is focusing on the economic benefits of better waste management as well.</p><p>"This will mean Australia converts more waste into higher valued resources ready for reuse locally by manufacturers and brands in their packaging and products," Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council, <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">told Reuters</a>.</p>
Green Jobs<p>The great potential of the circular economy to create green jobs is being recognized across the world.</p><p>In the UK, the Waste and Resources Action Program has launched a <a href="https://wrap.org.uk/buildbackbetter" target="_blank">six-point plan which it claims could add $90 billion to the economy, and create 500,000 new jobs</a>. Investment in the circular economy forms a significant part of the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/us/politics/biden-climate-plan.html" target="_blank">$2 trillion climate plan that Democratic candidate Joe Biden</a> is taking into November's US presidential election. And the <a href="https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_940" target="_blank">European Union has put its Green New Deal at the heart of its plans for recovery</a> from the economic shock of COVID-19.</p><p>The World Economic Forum's <a href="http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Future_Of_Nature_And_Business_2020.pdf" target="_blank">Future of Nature and Business</a> report identifies 15 systemic transitions with annual business opportunities worth $10 billion a year that could create 395 million jobs by 2030.</p><p>As is the case with Australia's Recycling Modernization Fund, a combination of private enterprise and government investment can offer ways to get people back to work by building a more environmentally sustainable economy.</p>
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The Great American Outdoors Act is now the law of the land.
<div id="e0008" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ffc07febbf5d2d585ad06d3f43e2be56"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290667833999929344" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Breaking News: The President has just signed the bipartisan #GreatAmericanOutdoorsAct. It will help: 🏗️ Restore… https://t.co/RPefKPMn7S</div> — Fix Our Parks (@Fix Our Parks)<a href="https://twitter.com/FixOurParksUS/statuses/1290667833999929344">1596554165.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Andrew J. Whelton and Caitlin R. Proctor
In recent years wildfires have entered urban areas, causing breathtaking destruction.
Survivors left everything to flee the Camp Fire's path. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Wildfires and Water<p>Both the Tubbs and Camp fires destroyed fire hydrants, water pipes and meter boxes. Water leaks and ruptured hydrants were common. The Camp Fire inferno spread at a speed of one football field per second, chasing everyone – including water system operators – out of town.</p><p>After the fires passed, testing ultimately revealed widespread hazardous drinking water contamination. Evidence suggests that the toxic chemicals originated from a combination of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">burning vegetation, structures and plastic materials</a>.</p>
Pipes, water meters and meter covers after wildfires destroyed them. Caitlin Proctor, Amisha Shah, David Yu, and Andrew Whelton/Purdue University
Dangerous Contamination Levels<p>Benzene was found at concentrations of 40,000 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water after the Tubbs Fire and at more than 2,217 ppb after the Camp Fire. According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, children exposed to benzene for a single day can suffer <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Benzene-Levels-in-Water.pdf" target="_blank">harm at levels as low as 26 ppb</a>.</p><p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting children's short-term acute exposure to <a href="https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-03/documents/dwtable2018.pdf" target="_blank">200 ppb</a>, and long-term exposure to less than <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/national-primary-drinking-water-regulations" target="_blank">5 ppb</a>. The EPA regulatory level for what constitutes a hazardous waste is <a href="https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-06/documents/tclp.pdf" target="_blank">500 ppb</a>.</p><p>In early 2019, California conducted contaminated water testing on humans by taking contaminated water from the Paradise Irrigation District and asking persons to smell it. The state found that even when people smelled contaminated water that had less than 200 ppb benzene, <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Dissipatiion-of-Burn-Related-VOC-From-Water.pdf" target="_blank">at least one person reported nausea and throat irritation</a>. The test also showed that water contained a variety of other benzene-like compounds that first responders had not sampled for.</p><p>The officials who carried out this small-scale test did not appear to realize the significance of what they had done, until we asked whether they had had their action approved in advance by an institutional review board. In response, they asserted that such a review was not needed.</p><p>In our view, this episode is telling for two reasons. First, one subject reported an adverse health effect after being exposed to water that contained benzene at a level below the EPA's recommended one-day limit for children. Second, doing this kind of test without proper oversight suggests that officials greatly underestimated the potential for serious contamination of local water supplies and public harm. After the Camp Fire, together with the EPA, we estimated that some plastic pipes needed <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/opinions/Final-HDPE-Service-Line-Decontamination-2019-03-18.pdf" target="_blank">more than 280 days</a> of flushing to make them safe again.</p>
Plastic pipes can be damaged by heat and fire contact. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Building Codes Could Make Areas Disaster-Ready<p>Our research underscores that community building codes are inadequate to prevent wildfire-caused pollution of drinking water and homes.</p><p>Installing one-way valves, called backflow prevention devices, at each water meter can prevent contamination rushing out of the damaged building from flowing into the larger buried pipe network.</p><p>Adopting codes that required builders to install fire-resistant meter boxes and place them farther from vegetation would help prevent infrastructure from burning so readily in wildfires. Concrete meter boxes and water meters with minimal plastic components would be less likely to ignite. Some plastics may be practically impossible to make safe again, since all types are susceptible to fire and heat.</p><p>Water main shutoff valves and water sampling taps should exist at every water meter box. Sample taps can help responders quickly determine water safety.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9540d7e271306ed417112042a3efc9a4"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GnlrzI1wdAI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Smell Test Doesn’t Work<p>Under no circumstance should people be told to <a href="https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/press_room/press_releases/2018/pr122418_voc.pdf" target="_blank">smell the water</a> to determine its safety, as was recommended for months after the Camp Fire. Many chemicals have no odor when they are harmful. Only testing can determine safety.</p><p>Ordering people to boil their water will not make it safe if it contains toxic chemicals that enter the air. Boiling just transmits those substances into the air faster. "Do not use" orders can keep people safe until agencies can test the water. Before such advisories are lifted or modified, regulators should be required to carry out a full chemical screen of the water systems. Yet, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">disaster</a> after <a href="https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2017/ew/c5ew00294j" target="_blank">disaster</a>, government agencies have failed to take this step.</p><p>Buildings should be tested to find contamination. <a href="https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2020/Q1/study-your-homes-water-quality-could-vary-by-the-room-and-the-season.html" target="_blank">Home drinking water quality can differ from room to room</a>, so reliable testing should sample both cold and hot water at many locations within each building.</p><p>While infrastructure is being repaired, survivors need a safe water supply. Water treatment devices sold for home use, such as refrigerator and faucet water filters, are not approved for extremely contaminated water, although product sales representatives and government officials may <a href="https://undark.org/2019/09/19/camp-fire-california-drinking-water-carcinogens/" target="_blank">mistakenly think</a> the devices can be used for that purpose.</p><p>To avoid this kind of confusion, external technical experts should be called in assist local public health departments, which can quickly become overwhelmed after disasters.</p>
<div id="71cf9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e059d199e8368d282a31601e372e4dda"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1204068265980547075" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">The Los Angeles City Council's Planning and Land Use Committee signed off on an effort to expand the city's fire-re… https://t.co/fP8Z8mUq7R</div> — IntlCodeCouncil (@IntlCodeCouncil)<a href="https://twitter.com/IntlCodeCouncil/statuses/1204068265980547075">1575907219.0</a></blockquote></div>
Preparing for Future Fires<p>The damage that the Tubbs and Camp fires caused to local water systems was preventable. We believe that urban and rural communities, as well as state legislatures, should establish codes and lists of authorized construction materials for high-risk areas. They also should establish rapid methods to assess health, prepare for water testing and decontamination, and set aside emergency water supplies.</p><p>Wildfires are coming to urban areas. Protecting drinking water systems, buried underground or in buildings, is one thing communities can do to prepare for that reality.</p>
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By Zulfikar Abbany
"We don't have a definition of life," says Kevin Peter Hand, one early California morning when we speak via video. "We don't actually know what life is."