Liz Carlisle Op-Ed on the Food System as a Public Health Concern


Obamacare and food as a public health concern

By Liz Carlisle

August 9, 2015

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables are in place as Elly Hartshorn hosts a wine tasting for the volunteers that helped out  at her small vineyard at Alemany Farm in San Francisco, Calif., as seen on Sat. July 18, 2015. Elly Hartshorn started her vineyard by planting grapes in a slice of parkland above the Alemany Farmers Market, where she volunteered. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle
Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle
Fresh fruits and vegetables are in place as Elly Hartshorn hosts a wine tasting for the volunteers that helped out at her small vineyard at Alemany Farm in San Francisco, Calif., as seen on Sat. July 18, 2015. Elly Hartshorn started her vineyard by planting grapes in a slice of parkland above the Alemany Farmers Market, where she volunteered.

At first, San Francisco Dr. Daphne Miller got funny looks when she told colleagues she was pursuing continuing education on sustainable farms. “The moment I began working as a family physician, it became clear to me that much of the chronic disease I was treating in my office was directly traced to our system of agriculture,” Miller explains. The ecologically managed farms Miller visited gave her hope for a better way — and inspired her to get involved in how we grow our food. For Miller and an increasing share of the medical community, the imperative to change the food system is a matter of health care economics.

When the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act’s federal health insurance subsidies in June, the 6.4 million Americans who rely on these subsidies breathed a sigh of relief. Joining them were emergency room nurses, social service providers and everyone else with a front-row seat on the inhumanity and short-sightedness of denying low-income Americans access to routine health care. Since the 2010 passage of Obamacare, more than 17 million uninsured people have enrolled in a plan.

But Obamacare also offers another opportunity. The law requires private hospitals to spend 3 percent of profits on community chronic disease prevention programs and, as Miller explains, “That’s a lot of dollars that could potentially go to supporting a healthier agricultural system. We just need to connect the dots and start seeing the way we grow our food as a public health concern.”

We can begin with the American diet. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, and it’s costing us $147 billion a year. First lady Michelle Obama has responded by trying to increase children’s physical activity, improve school lunch and get kids in the garden — all important and laudable goals. Cities such as New York and San Francisco have attempted to introduce taxes on sugary beverages to discourage consumption; Berkeley’s soda tax passed last year and will provide an interesting test case for this policy approach.

But our unhealthy national diet is just a symptom. It’s our food system that is the disease. Agricultural policy — mostly within the federal Farm Bill — continues to prop up a food sector structured to produce the very fare associated with our most common causes of death and ill health. Because we effectively subsidize unhealthy foods, they are artificially cheap; hence, the health burden of their consumption falls disproportionately on low-income communities. As Miller says, “Primary prevention is offering everyone a healthful, affordable selection of foods; whereas secondary prevention is screening for diabetes and heart disease.”

In other words, if we really want to improve American health, we need to change the structure of this food system, from the ground up. We need to rebuild infrastructure to support diverse rotation crops, distribution of local produce, and farm-to-institution partnerships for schools, hospitals and child care facilities. We need to support our public agricultural research and agricultural extension system and direct its activities toward biologically diversified farming systems and agriculture in the public interest. Absent such changes, attempts to curb diet-related ill health merely will treat symptoms, not the disease.

Liz Carlisle is a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems at UC Berkeley and the author of “Lentil Underground,” (Gotham/Penguin Random House, 2015).

LA Times Op-Ed: How to Really Nurture America’s Young Farmers

How to really nurture America’s young farmers

Los Angeles Times
By Liz Carlisle
A bill recently introduced in Congress, the Young Farmer Success Act, would make farmers eligible for federally subsidized student loan forgiveness — just as teachers and nurses are now — on the grounds that agriculture is a public service. But is it?

Certainly the history of U.S. farm policy would suggest that lawmakers have long seen agriculture as a public good. Why else would they pass a farm bill that, in its most recent iteration, commits $134 billion to farm subsidies, commodity programs and insurance? Why would California so assiduously defend agricultural water rights in the midst of a severe drought?

Arguably agriculture is more than a good; it’s a necessity, because everyone eats. But given that most U.S. crops will become fuel, animal feed, processed food components, export commodities or waste, the reality is a bit more complicated.

The truth is that agriculture is a hybrid public-private activity, and when it comes to evaluating the costs and benefits of its public fraction, not all farming is created equal.

The dominant approach to farming in the U.S. — the one encouraged by the last 150 years of agricultural policy — focuses on maximizing the immediate private benefit to the farmer, measured in yield of cash crops. Public benefits of commodity farming, its supporters argue, include open space, the preservation of rural life and the American agrarian tradition, and — the boon most touted by the architects of 20th century farm policy — an advantage in the balance of foreign trade.

However, some of these benefits have proved hollow. Commodity farming has led to larger and larger farms, which have meant smaller and smaller rural communities, and the flood of grain has continually driven down prices.

Is farming a public service? Well, it depends, and not on the age of the farmer. –
Simultaneously, commodity farming has led to a number of public “bads,” from dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico (caused by nitrogen fertilizer runoff) to toxic manure lagoons and poor air quality (due to confinement animal feeding operations). Plus, if you follow these commodity crops all the way to their eventual consumption by the public, an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. When you consider all its externalized costs, cheap food is not so cheap.

In response to widespread concern about these negative effects, the Reagan-era Department of Agriculture developed a parallel but less influential policy approach to farming, one that aims to maximize not private gain but environmental good such as wildlife habitat and watershed protection. This alternative strategy encourages nonproduction, as epitomized by the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to leave land fallow.

What has only recently come to the attention of policymakers, however, is that the soundest long-term approach to farming and conservation comes from understanding them not as opposing objectives but as two goals grounded in the same foundation.

Farmers, in other words, don’t have to stop planting crops to help the environment. Farms are sutured into living ecosystems, and their production is reliant on the health of those ecosystems. It is entirely possible for farmers to raise nutritious food and also protect water quality, invest in soil fertility and actively promote a diverse community of pollinators, beneficial insects and plant species.

So back to the question: Is farming a public service? Well, it depends, and not on the age of the farmer. Although there’s a feel-good quality to supporting young farmers — and young farmers are proportionally more likely to manage their lands organically — age does not map neatly onto farming practices. More fundamentally, paying young farmers’ college loans does nothing to change the incentive structure of U.S. agriculture to truly support them in farming for the long-term common good.

Instead of loan forgiveness, why not subsidize land access for farmers who commit to water conservation practices, cover cropping, crop rotation and avoidance of toxic chemicals? Why not expand the program that directly funds young people to participate in public service — AmeriCorps — including the portion that focuses on the food system, FoodCorps?

It’s a missed opportunity to encourage young people to work on a farm, any farm, as if they were all equally beneficial to the American public. It makes far more sense to incentivize specific practices.

Liz Carlisle is a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems at UC Berkeley and the author of “Lentil Underground.”

Read this op-ed on the LA Times website

Summer Events in Montana

The Lentil Underground tour kicks off summer with a June 4 stop in Red Lodge, Montana, and we’ll be in Lewistown, Billings, Livingston, and Missoula in mid-July.  Watch the events page for details!

Five Reasons to Love Lentils

Liz Carlisle
Organic Matters, Spring 2015

They’re not the charismatic megafauna of the supermarket. But while we’ve been focused on kale, chia seeds, coconut water, and the dazzling array of organic produce that’s recently entered common parlance, they’ve been waiting for us over in the bulk section. Organic lentils.

I know what you’re thinking. Lentils are so old school!

Well, you’re right about that. Lentils have been rotated with grains for 10,000 years, and their cultivation dates back to the dawn of agriculture.

And yes, some early vegetarian cookbooks wore us out on uninspiring versions of lentil soup. But there’s so much more to lentils than soup, and there are good reasons these little legumes have stood the test of time. Here are five of them:


As legumes (members of the pea family), lentils have a symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria, allowing them to fix atmospheric nitrogen. Therefore lentils require no nitrogen fertilizer, and even contribute some nitrogen to subsequent crops. Why does this matter? Because synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is one of the biggest environmental problems with our food system. When chemical fertilizer runs off into the watershed, it pollutes the drinking water supply in rural communities and causes marine dead zones downstream. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer also has a hefty greenhouse gas footprint, mostly associated with the energy required to manufacture it. On a life cycle basis, legume crops and legume-based pastures use 35 to 60 percent less fossil energy than chemically-fertilized grains – and the fossil field savings is even higher for organic lentils.


Lentils can be grown without irrigation, and they are tolerant of both low and volatile moisture. They pause their growth cycle during dry times, staging their development to fit within the constants of their water resource. When I was researching my book Lentil Underground, which tells the story behind Timeless Natural Food, the 2012 drought hit the grain belt, devastating many farmers’ crops. But even though Timeless growers only got 40% of their typical precipitation, they still realized 80% of normal yields.


You probably know that lentils are a great source of protein. But did you know that:

  • Lentils offer more than one third of the recommended intake of fiber in one ½ cup portion.
  • A half cup serving of lentils provides 45% of recommended daily folate, which is necessary for the production of red blood cells and protein metabolism, and is particularly important for women of childbearing age due to its role in the developing embryo.
  • One cup of lentils has potassium comparable to one banana. Potassium is imperative for electrolyte and fluid balance, as well as muscle and cardiac function
  • Blueberries have become popular providers of antioxidant properties, but lentils contain 56% more antioxidant capacity than blueberries.


When they are used in a crop rotation, organic lentils can improve soil fertility and provide more stable income for producers who might otherwise be reliant on commodity grains. Diversifying crops, markets and risks decreases a producer’s vulnerability, and boosts rural economies.


If soup is as far as you’ve ventured, it’s time to get more adventurous with your lentil cooking! Having been cultivated since the dawn of agriculture, all over the world, lentils feature prominently in a number of global cuisines, from Ethiopian messer wot to Indian dal to Lebanese mujadara. For more ideas, check out the teaser slide show for Bozeman Chef Claudia Galofre-Krevat’s forthcoming cookbook, Pulse of the Earth: Local Food Global Flavors.

Montana native Liz Carlisle is the author of Lentil Underground, which tells the story of a group of Montana organic farmers who made their farms more sustainable by sharing knowledge, resources, and inspiration. She holds a Ph.D. in Geography from UC Berkeley, where she is a fellow at the Center for Diversified Farming Systems.


Recipes from the Lentil Underground Tour

When the Lentil Underground tour rolled into White River Junction, Vermont, the spread that greeted us was almost as amazing as the warm welcome:

Our friends from the Upper Valley Co-op in White River Junction have graciously shared their recipes, which cover the gamut from curried lentil cakes and mini dosas to lentil oatmeal cookies and apple lentil cupcakes.

Click Here to Download the Recipes