Good Food; Your Right, Your Responsibility[1]

John Ikerd[2]

I am convinced that we are currently in the process of fundamentally changing the American food system. I believe today’s college students and young faculty who are committed to principles of sustainability can and must play an important part in bringing about the necessary, transformative changes. One advantage of being old is that I can remember when we had a fundamentally different food system. Contrary to popular opinion, it was a much better food system. We actually had a smaller percentage of Americans who were hungry or food insecure than we have today. The food we ate was much more healthful and nutritious. This claim is supported by the growing epidemic of obesity and diet related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and a variety of diet-related cancers. When we talk about “good food” today we mean food that tastes good and is wholesome, nutritious, and produced under humane, sustainable conditions. Good food today is a luxury that only the affluent can afford. When I was growing up in the 1940s, ‘50s, and even into the ‘60s, everyone ate “good food”—that was the only kind of food available.

As a professor of agricultural economics, I took part in changing that “good food system” of the past into the inequitable, unhealthy, unsustainable food system we have today. The basic motivation was that we were going to improve the efficiency of food production and make good food affordable to everyone. We designed what I now call an industrial agri-food system to achieve this mission. We succeeded in reducing farm-level costs of agricultural production, but we failed to anticipate the environmental, social, and even rural economic costs.

When industrial farming operations polluted the air and water with chemical and biological wastes, we justified the environmental costs as being necessary to achieve greater economic efficiency. When industrial farming eroded and degraded the productivity of soils, we relied on chemical fertilizers to continue increasing yields. When large industrial farms invariably displaced smaller family farms, we just assumed the displaced family farmers would find better employment elsewhere. Many didn’t or couldn’t and more than a few committed suicides. Farming was their reason for living. When the rural communities that depended on those farm families to shop on Main Street, attend local schools and churches, and otherwise support their community withered and died, we called it inevitable “collateral damage” of economic progress.

We sacrificed the future of rural America for economic efficiency. And what did we achieve? Nothing. We didn’t feed the hungry and we didn’t produce good food. It was a grand experiment, and it was well intended, but it failed. It’s time to admit that failure. It’s time for another great transformation in farming and food production. With post-World War II agrichemical and mechanical technologies, and supportive government policies, we transformed the “good food” system of the past into the unsustainable food system of today. We did in a period of less than 50 years—mostly between the 1960s and 1990s. We now have the farming skills and knowledge to transform today’s, industrial/global food system into a sustainable/local food system, and with supportive government policies, we could do it in less than 50 years.

I believe the concept of “food sovereignty” provides the guiding principles for an agri-food system transformation and the conceptual framework for transformative agri-food policies. Food sovereignty proclaims that everyone has a basic human right to good food, healthful food, produced by sustainable means—and that every community has a right to determine its own food system. Colleges and universities provide an ideal environment to demonstrate the potential for such a transformation. You have the power to create your own local, community-based food systems on your campuses. You can partner with local, sustainable farmers to provide them with a viable economic foundation for a new sustainable food system—while they provide students, faculty, and campus employees with good, healthful, nutritious sustainably produced foods.

On “food sovereign” campuses, students would proclaim a “right” to good, sustainably-produced food—and a right to choose how their food is produced and who produces it. Students and faculty could be guided by the basic principles of cooperatives and public utilities. In the beginning, at least, food production by local farmers may not be adequate to meet campus needs. However, food sovereignty would not be compromised by going beyond local farmers in sourcing food, as long as doing so does not compromise food quality or sustainability—or diminish the commitment to the ecological, social, and economic integrity of the local community. There is no reason that a great agri-food transformation cannot start on college campuses today.

The most prominent driver of change in American agriculture today is the necessity of reducing the negative impacts of agriculture on global climate change. However, in addressing the challenges of climate change, we must avoid making the same kind of mistake we have made in the past by trying to solve one problem in ways that create others. In an attempt to solve the problem of hunger, we created the industrial agri-food system that not only failed to feed the hungry, but also created an epidemic of diet related diseases and decimated rural economics and communities. This industrial agriculture also released, and continues to release, massive quantities of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, contributing to the growing problem of climate change. In the process of addressing the problems of climate change, we must avoid exacerbating the problems of food insecurity, water pollution, or the economic and social decay of rural communities. Continued reliance on the industrial paradigm of agriculture while addressing climate change virtually ensures all of these negative outcomes.

So what are the alternatives? How can we address the challenges of climate change without creating additional environmental, social, or rural economic problems? Fortunately, agricultural scientists and farmers all around the world have been aware of the fundamental flaws in industrial agriculture for decades and have been developing viable alternatives. In the U.S. we are most familiar with the alternative of organic farming, which has increased dramatically with the growing consumer demand for organic foods. Other non-industrial paradigms of farming go by names such as biodynamic, ecological, biological, holistic, regenerative, restorative, and natural. All of these farming systems attempt to maintain the ecological, social, and economic integrity essential for agricultural sustainability—while industrial agriculture prioritizes profitability over ecological and social responsibility.

All these alternatives fit under the conceptual umbrella of sustainable agriculture: an agriculture that is capable of meeting the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future. The ecological, social, and economic dimensions of sustainability are all essential and inseparable. Everything of use to us, including everything of economic value, ultimately comes from nature by way of society. If we destroy the ecological or social integrity of nature or society, we destroy our economy and our means of human survival. Unfortunately, the large, agri-food corporations have co-opted the word “sustainable” rather than restructuring their organizations to accommodate the ecological and social environments within which they function. For them, sustainability is just a “buzzword” for doing whatever can easily be done to accommodate growing public concerns, as long as it doesn’t compromise profitability and economic growth.

In the case of organics, large agri-food corporations have developed organic-like farming practices to fit their industrial system of processing and distribution. They basically have substituted organic for inorganic inputs in industrial farming systems. However, traditional organic farmers are fighting back. The mission of the newly formed Real Organic Project, for example, is to: “grow people’s understanding of foundational organic values and practices; crops grown in soil and livestock raised on pasture are fundamental to organic farming.”[3] They are committed to the ecological, social, and cultural values embedded in “real” organic farming. These values simply cannot be captured in lists of allowable and non-allowable materials.

Many sustainable farmers in the U.S. have responded to the threat of climate change by adopting the name “regenerative” for their sustainable farming practices. Their focus in on regenerating the biological, mineral, and structural health of the soil, which not only restores and sustains productivity but also captures and stores large quantities of carbon in soil organic matter. Regenerative farming has the potential to significantly mitigate, possibly eliminate and reverse, agriculture’s net contribution to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. However regenerative farming, like organic farming, runs the risk of being co opted by industrial agriculture. If regeneration is measured in terms of carbon sequestration and productivity, while excluding its larger ecological, social, and economic impacts of nature and society, regenerative agriculture will degenerate into a modified, but unsustainable, version of industrial agriculture.

Agroecology is a concept of sustainable agriculture that may prove far more difficult, if not impossible, for industrial agriculture to distort or coopt. Agroecology has gained global prominence in scientific, agricultural, and political discourse in recent years. The concept is important, but less well known, in the U.S. It is promoted by advocates for its potential to contribute to transformative change in agri-food systems by applying the scientific principles of ecology to agriculture and thus restoring and sustaining the health and regenerative capacity of the earth’s natural ecosystems. However, agroecology also includes the science of human ecology, of human relationships with nature as well as the relationships within nature. The first principle of ecology is that everything in integrally connected—farms, farmers, agroecosystems, communities, and societies. Thus, healthy agroecosystems would ensure the equitable distribution of food as well as sustainable food production.

A United Nations report summarized the concept in this way: “Agroecology embraces a science, a set of practices and a social movement and has evolved over recent decades to expand in scope from a focus on fields and farms to encompass whole agriculture and food systems. It now represents a transdisciplinary field that includes all the ecological, sociocultural, technological, economic and political dimensions of food systems, from production to consumption.”[4] All of the authentically sustainable alternatives to industrial agriculture mentioned above fit under the conceptual umbrella of agroecology.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has endorsed agroecology as a key strategy for mitigating future climate change as well as for coping with the consequences of climate change that are now inevitable. Changes in specific crop or livestock enterprises or farming practices that fail to radically modify the basic nature of industrial agriculture, at best, will only be capable of temporarily moderating its negative impacts. The FAO study concludes: “The biggest and most durable benefits will likely result from more radical agro ecological measures that will strengthen the resilience of farmers and rural communities, such as diversification of agroecosystems in the form of polycultures, agroforestry systems, and crop-livestock mixed systems accompanied by organic soil management, water conservation and harvesting, and general enhancement of agrobiodiversity.”[5] Agroecological research confirms that traditional farming systems embody a wealth of ecological and social principles and proven farming methods that can help future agricultural systems become more resilient to climatic extremes.

The concepts of agroecology and agricultural sustainability underpin the concept of “food sovereignty”—which has evolved into a major global agri-food movement. Food sovereignty is a term coined in 1996 by Via Campesina, an organization of 148 international organizations advocating family farm–based, sustainable agriculture.[6] The movement is an explicit rejection of the industrial agriculture policies being forced upon “lesser-developed” nations under the guise of promoting food security. An international conference held in Nyéléni Sélingué, Mali in 2007 defined food sovereignty as: “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” [7] Food sovereignty also addresses sustainability more specifically in that “It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation.” Food sovereignty reflects a realization that neither food security nor agricultural sustainability can be left to the impersonal discretion of global food markets but are basic human rights.

Fortunately, there is a growing realization of this same reality in the United States, although it is far from becoming the dominant political policy agenda of the U.S. government. A 2019 U.S. Congressional Resolution labeled as “The Green New Deal,” explicitly recognizes the right to safe, nutritious, sustainably produced food—as a basic human right. Equally important, the resolution explicitly recognizes that the challenges of climate change cannot be met without simultaneously meeting the larger challenges of ecological, social, and economic integrity.

The following is an excerpt from the 2019 Congressional Record of House Resolution 109. “It is the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal—(A) to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, fairly for all; (B) to create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all; (C) to invest in infrastructure and industry to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century; (D) to secure for all people for generations to come— (i) clean air and water; (ii) climate and community resiliency; (iii) healthy food; (iv) access to nature; and (v) a sustainable environment; and (E) to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression.[8] Public attention thus far have focused on the commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to jobs and economic security for all. However, the most important commitments its multigenerational commitment to ecological and social sustainability.

The Green New Deal is only a Congressional Resolution, not a piece of legislation, and it has never been seriously discussed by the U.S. Congress. However, it has been endorsed by all of the major Democratic candidates for U.S. President in the 2020 elections, which reflects the growing public understanding of the urgency of addressing climate change and support for the basic ideas and principles expressed in the resolution. Public support and opposition likely will be divided along political party lines. This should not be the case as the core values reflected in the Green New Deal are basic Democratic, Republican, and American values.

The American Declaration of Independence proclaims, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In market economies, there is no way to secure these rights without government policies that ensure that the basic human needs of all are met. The Declaration of Independence continues, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” The fundamental purpose of the U.S. was, and still is, to secure the unalienable rights of the people. If we have a right to life, we at the very least must have clean air and water, and healthy food. Without these things, there can be no liberty to pursue happiness.

To claim that everyone has an equal right to everything of economic value could accurately be labeled as socialism. However, this is fundamentally different from the claim that everyone has an equal right to meet their basic human needs for clean air and water, healthy food, adequate housing, quality health care, and basic economic security. I believe the Green New Deal reflects a public awakening that provides hope for transformational changes in government policies, including agri-food policies. I believe such a change would fundamentally redirect our society and our agri-food system toward a more ecologically sound, socially responsible, economically viable, sustainable future, as I have outlined in more detail elsewhere.[9] In the meantime each of us has a responsibility to help bring about this transformation.

I believe university and college campuses can be ideal places to pilot, test, and demonstrate the potential benefits of accepting a commitment to “good food as a right as well as a responsibility.” I have suggested the idea of “community food utilities,” or CFUs, as one means of meeting our collective responsibility to ensure good food for all.[10] Public utilities are organizations established to provide specific public services. They are commonly used to provide water, sewer, electricity, natural gas, transportation, and other essential services. Public utilities are granted special privileges and are subject to special governmental regulation. While our existing system of public utilities ensure universal access to essential services, they do not ensure that everyone can afford enough of those services to meet their needs. As I envision them, CFUs would not only ensure universal access to food, but also would ensure that everyone has enough “good food” to meet their basic needs—as an essential public service.

The existence of a variety of government food assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, or SNAP, affirms that providing food security is a legitimate public service. The CFU could fill in the persistent gap left by these impersonal government programs that are not being met by private charities of other means. The CFU would be funded primarily by redirecting current government food assistance payments for current recipients who voluntarily choose to join the CFU. In return, the CFU would ensure that each member is provided with enough “good food” to meet their needs, regardless of cost.

Government food assistance funds, such SNAP payments, could be converted into Community Food Dollars (CF$s), which could be used only to buy food provided by the CFU. CFU participants could be asked to contribute a certain amount of “time,” working for the CFU or other local public services, to make up for the difference in costs of operating the CFU and government food assistance funding. This would give recipients opportunities to express their food choices. Nutrition education would be integrated into all CFU programs to help participants learn to select nutritiously balanced diets for their families and to prepare appetizing meals from the raw and minimally processed foods provided by the CFU. More than 80% of the cost of foods purchased overall,[11] and nearly 90% of the cost of restaurant meals, are associated with the costs of processing, packaging, transportation, energy, taxes, insurance, and services provided by food retailers.[12] By spending their CF$s on the raw and minimally processed local foods provided by the CFU, all CFU members would be able to afford more than enough good food.

I have suggested that CFU be organized as a “vertical cooperative” with membership and representation on the board of directors including food recipients, farmers, food processors, local food charities, and local government officials. Priority in procuring food for the CFU would be given to local farmers willing to meet locally determined standards that ensure safe, nutritious, appetizing foods produced by sustainable means. The CFU would serve as a “food grid” by procuring foods from nonlocal producers when necessary to fill in gaps in local production. Priority for nonlocal procurement would be given to regional suppliers who are willing and able to meet local “good food” standards. Local farmers and providers would be ensured prices sufficient to cover their costs of production plus a reasonable profit, as is the case with existing public utilities. Prices would be negotiated between the CFU and farmers, much as public utility regulators now negotiate rates with public utilities.

As local production expands beyond levels needed to address hunger, the CFU could offer good food to the general community at prices covering its full costs plus a profit for the CFU. However, the CFU would require continuing commitments of local tax dollars. The key difference between the CFU and existing government programs would be that government officials in caring communities would feel a personal sense of connection with their community, and community members feel a personal sense of responsibility for each other.

The basic concepts and principles of community food utilities could be piloted and demonstrated on college and university campuses by working through campus food services to ensure access to “good food” as both a right and responsibility of the college or university. Campus food services would not need to organize as a public utility because universities have the ability to make autonomous food procurement and food service decisions that insulate them from the forces of global food markets.

Perhaps campus CFUs could instead organize as Sustainable Food Unions, or SFUs. They could still function as vertical cooperatives, with members and boards of directors that include students, farmers, food service workers, and university administrators. Farmer members would commit to following the principles of agroecology to ensure sustainability. The SFU could assume the responsibility of ensuring that every member of the SFU could afford enough good food. Members who could not afford the full cost would be asked to contribute “time” to campus or community public service activities to make up for any deficits. Student payments made for on-campus food services could be SF$, allowing students to express their food preferences.

The priority mission of such campus food security prototypes or pilot projects would be to confirm that the concepts of sustainability, agroecology, and food sovereignty are not some idealistic dream but are realistic paths to a better agri-food reality. Once on-campus food sovereignty is achieved, a college or university could engage local community leaders in a dialogue about how best to proceed with forming a CFU to address food insecurity in the local community of which the university is a part. Local public officials could then engage local farmers, food processors, local charities, and current government food assistance recipients in a collaborative process of exploring the formation of a local food utility.

The campus-based student-led initiatives would have reaffirmed “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.” They would have proven that it is possible to meet the needs of all in the present while “defending the interests and inclusion of the next generation.”[13] They would have affirmed that good food for all is not only our right, it is our responsibility.


[1] Prepared for an invited presentation at Mount Mercy University, sponsored by the MMU Office of Sustainability, Cedar Rapids, IA, November 11, 2019.

[2] John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri, Columbia MO, – USA. He is the author of six books, which are available on Books and Kindle E-books, and dozens of presentation papers, blog pieces, and other website posts at and Email: The professional opinions expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Missouri.

[3] Real Organic Project, .

[4] High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food Security, “HLPE Report on Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. Extract from the Report: Summary and Recommendations” Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations, (19 June 2019).

[5] Altieri, M. , Nicholls, C. I., Henao, A., Lana, M. A., “Agroecology Knowledge Hub,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, .

[6] Via Campesina. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. from

[7] Nyéléni. Declaration of the Forum for Food Sovereignty, Nyéléni, 2007. (para 3).

[8] 116th Congress. (2019). 1st Session. H. Res. 109. Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal, pp 5-6. .

[9] John Ikerd, THE ECONOMIC PAMPHLETEER: A "Green New Deal for Farm and Food Policy. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 9(1), (2019), pp 3-5. .

[10] Ikerd, J. (2016). THE ECONOMIC PAMPHLETEER: Enough Good Food for All: A Proposal. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 7(1), 3-6.

[11] U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, “Food Dollar Series,”

[12] U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. (n.d.). Ag and Food Statistics: Charting the Essentials: Food Prices and Spending. Retrieved 8/16 from

[13] Nyéléni. Declaration of the Forum for Food Sovereignty, Nyéléni, 2007. (para 3).