Article - Nutrition Starts at the Farm: A Look at U.S. Agriculture


Nutrition Starts at the Farm: A Look at U.S. Agriculture

By Neva Cochran, MS, RDN, LD, FAND and Scott Brown, MS, RDN, LDN


When children are asked, “Where does milk come from?” they’ll often answer, “from the store.” With the number of famers in the U.S. having decreased dramatically from 40% of the labor force 100 years ago to less than 2% today, it’s not surprising that many people have no concept of how food is produced or where it comes from.  If, however, you have gone to a supermarket, farmer’s market, restaurant, fast food chain or other places that sell food, you have a farmer to thank. Because of farmers and those working in American agriculture we now have access to more safe and nutritious food than at any other time in history.



Think about your favorite food. Maybe it’s pizza, barbeque, avocados, butternut squash or chocolate. Now, think about where you would get it. Most of us are not out harvesting wheat for our pizza dough or picking avocados for our guacamole. We’re buying it at a local supermarket or restaurant and probably prefer it that way. Buying food nearby with little travel and effort makes life easier. The trade-off for this convenience may be a growing disconnect between what happens on the farm and how our favorite foods actually end up on our plates. Let’s take this a step further and look at how the agriculture industry has changed in the last century.



In the past 100 years technology advances in agriculture have made growing, harvesting, delivering, protecting and enjoying food easier and less expensive. The farm used to be a much more familiar place to many Americans. However, society changes and with it comes new careers and opportunities in the labor force. According to the World Bank those employed in US agriculture fell from 11.68 million in 1900 to 1.95 million in 2014. This shift happened due in part to government initiatives, increased jobs in manufacturing and technology and farming techniques that make growing food more efficient and less labor intensive.



Now more than ever people have the chance to learn about food and where it really comes from. It is true that there is a variety sources of information from an array of sources, which can make sorting out the facts more challenging. With less than 2% of the US population engaged in agriculture,  that means over 300 million Americans have little or no experience with how food goes from seed to plate. More exposure and conversations with those who grow, harvest and transport food can truly help create a more informed consumer. After all, in 2050 there will be nearly 10 billion people on this planet and it will take every bit of innovation and collaboration to ensure the entire globe is provided with healthy food that’s sustainable for all.

We are fortunate in the U.S. that farmers and consumers have a choice in the food they grow and that we eat. There are a variety of methods for growing crops but ultimately the way the food is produced is up to each individual farmer. Even if you did not grow up on a farm you might still be familiar with certain agriculture terms. Conventional, GMO and organic all refer to farming production methods.



Most of the food we eat in the U.S. is produced by conventional farmers, which allows them to use technology and products that lead to greater yields of nutritious and health-promoting foods. Conventional farms tend to be larger and grow a single type of high-yield crop utilizing synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. More food is produced with less land to ensure a more abundant and less expensive food supply. Conventional farmers can also use antibiotics and medications when needed to ensure the health of their animals.



Organic farming is becoming more popular among consumers who say they are concerned with improving the health of themselves and their families. Organic crops are grown from organic seeds without synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, irradiation or genetic engineering. While natural pesticides and fertilizers are primarily used, a limited number of approved synthetic substances are allowed if natural methods are inadequate. Farmers who want the USDA certified organic label must comply with government regulations related to the way they grow their crops. It’s important to note that food is labeled “organic” because of the way it is grown. According to former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, “The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.”



Agricultural biotechnology, or GMO as it is popularly called, uses a variety of tools including traditional breeding and genetic engineering to make changes to improve agricultural crops. It can make insect control and weed management safer and easier as well as protect crops against disease. The 10 GMO crops approved for sale in the U.S. are field and sweet corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya, squash, potatoes and apples. The majority of these are made into ingredients for food products like cornstarch, corn syrup, corn oil, canola oil, soybean oil and sugar.



Supermarket shelves are lined with thousands of products and food items that are all competing for the opportunity to be placed in your shopping cart. Reading a food label – the nutrition facts panel and ingredient list - and a little common sense can go a long way. For instance, fruits and vegetables promote health whether they are organic or conventional.

U.S. farmers who produce food in this country do so because they want to provide a safe, nutritious and abundant supply of food to feed people in our country and around the world. While you may hear conflicting information about conventional, GMO and organically farmed food, it is important to note that these different methods do not differ in their end result: they are all safe, nutritious and healthful. There are food choices for everyone no matter what your personal taste preferences and dietary needs are and your budget can afford. We have the safest food supply in the world, so enjoy it with balance, variety and moderation!


This article was originally published in Southern Dallas County Business and Living Magazine, October and November 2019.


Neva Cochran, MS, RDN, LD, FAND is a Nutrition Communications Consultant in Dallas, Texas.

Scott Brown, MS, RDN, LDN is a Nutrition Advisor at Raley’s Supermarkets in Reno, Nevada.