Back when I was covering politics full-time, I thought the election of Barack Obama should bring a whole new look at food policy. My good friend Michael Winship wrote about the idea of Michael Pollan as the new Secretary of Agriculture but Pollan wasn't interested.
I certainly had my own take back in late 2008 about a "New Deal" approach to food policy. I tossed out the idea of a Secretary of Nutrition, even suggesting Mike Huckabee in a bipartisan move.
Tom Vilsack has been the Secretary of Agriculture from Day 1 of the Obama Administration. Finding positive highlights of his time was highly rare. His take on "pink slime" was more typical.
Vilsack actively defended "pink slime" in ground beef in 2012. "This product is safe. There's no question about it. We've said that repeatedly and we'll continue to say it."
This brings us to the op-ed in The Washington Post last week — "How a national food policy could save millions of American lives" — written by Pollan along with Mark Bittman, Ricardo Salvador, and Olivier De Schutter.
- How a national food policy could save millions of American lives (The Washington Post)
The op-ed lists a "Bill of Rights" that could be accomplished by a national food policy:
- All Americans have access to healthful food;
- Farm policies are designed to support our public health and environmental objectives;
- Our food supply is free of toxic bacteria, chemicals and drugs;
- Production and marketing of our food are done transparently;
- The food industry pays a fair wage to those it employs;
- Food marketing sets children up for healthful lives by instilling in them a habit of eating real food;
- Animals are treated with compassion and attention to their well-being;
- The food system’s carbon footprint is reduced, and the amount of carbon sequestered on farmland is increased;
- The food system is sufficiently resilient to withstand the effects of climate change.
The list proves how complex the problems are in our current food system, much less changing this with a national food policy. Farm subsidies, dominance of factory farms, climate change, income equities, animal care, concerns over marketing to children, and emphasis of corn and soybeans over other farm products are only some of the battles that this list covers.
The more appropriate title for the op-ed would be "How a good national food policy could save millions of American lives." We have a national food policy — a badly misguided food policy — but we do have a national approach.
We have extolled the idea of improving the food supply in the United States simply by getting the government and taxpayer dollars to stop misplaced subsidies. As noted in the op-ed, "While MyPlate recommends a diet of 50 percent vegetables and fruits, the administration devotes less than 1 percent of farm subsidies to support the research, production and marketing of those foods. More than 60 percent of that funding subsidizes the production of corn and other grains — food that is mostly fed to animals, converted to fuel for cars or processed into precisely the sort of junk the first lady is urging us to avoid."
Michelle Obama has been as strong an advocate for a better food policy, but despite her husband's position, she doesn't have government power to change. Improving food labels is a great idea, but also better to improve the food behind the label.
As the op-ed notes, "The result is the spectacle of Michelle Obama warning Americans to avoid high-fructose corn syrup at the same time the president is signing farm bills that subsidize its production."
Treating food with respect is a mantra that Americans used to believe in, regardless of political stripe. While the food supply system shifted in quality, we still heard the same praise about the American food system, just in an Orwellian way.
That respect should extend to the humans who harvest the food and the animals responsible for some of that food. The mainstream American society has been hooked on cheap food for about 35 years and with wages not performing well, that pressure isn't likely to decrease anytime soon.
"free of" "transparently" "fair" "compassion" "public health"
— all phrases in the list from the op-ed, all missing from the current debate in DC.
Those on the left feel like all of these issues are tied together. Politically, realistically, change has to come in sections and batches. The first move, the most practical move, is to get "the other side" to agree on some common values. Whatever we do think about the current national food policy, "do no harm" also applies here.
In a more naive moment, I wrote that Sarah Palin could have been that supporter for an improved food system. Palin, like a lot of those on the right, has been caught up in the "if Obama likes it, then we don't" approach.
Here is some of what I wrote:
But there is one political solution that would make liberals and conservatives happy: getting government to stop the current rules that govern what gets grown and why. Have a true free market system.
Stop subsidies that benefit corn producers. Stop policies that force farmers to grow corn and soybeans, much of which isn't fit for human consumption. Stop penalizing sugar growers by setting their prices artificially high. Stop companies from getting patents on seeds and therefore punishing innocent farmers.
Conservatives love the idea of the free market and are usually anti-subsidy (unless the subsidy is for something they want, such as vouchers for private schools). Right now, we have a government system that subsidizes cheap carbohydrates that on multiple levels has damaged the American food system.
Palin likes to portray herself as a outsider, and this may be hard for liberals to understand this, she could be a force for change, good change. The problem for Palin and other conservative pundits is that they are arguing politics when they should be arguing policy.
The current setup is anti-conservative, anti-free market and a true outsider could gain support to make significant changes. Of course, huge changes aren't in the comfort zone of conservatives; but the trickling of 30+ years of food policy has been the anti-(small c) conservative change. Sarah Palin, we ask you to use your Mama Grizzly skills for good. Change policy, not politics.
When food is cheap in more ways than one, it loses value. We need a food system that treats food as if it has value. Liberals value food more than conservatives, everything else being equal. What a national food policy should do the most is to get all of us to value and appreciate what goes into making a wonderful food system.