Saturday, September 20, 2008

"It's the Food System, Stupid"

Throughout the last two years of presidential campaigning, one important topic has been noticeably absent. We’ve heard quite a bit about ending or prolonging the Iraq War, about the global economic recession, about a world running out of oil and the urgent need to develop renewable “alternatives.” We’ve heard about global warming, although at least one candidate has voiced some doubt about its human origins. These are all urgent concerns.

But we haven’t heard much about the need to put healthy food on our tables. We haven’t heard a candidate stand up and say, “It’s the food system, stupid.”

There are presently 800 million people in the world who go hungry each day, and ironically, one billion who qualify as overweight or obese. Food riots have erupted in cities and communities across the globe. Some key food producing regions have been gripped by drought, others have experienced catastrophic floods. Fingers are being pointed at the rapidly expanding agrofuel industry, which is taking valuable arable acreage away from food and grain production to fill gas tanks. Prices of productive farmland are soaring from Argentina to Iowa to the Ukraine. Suddenly, the world seems to be bumping up against limited resources—limits to soils, to fresh water, to food.

Yet in the eyes of our political establishment, the world food crisis seems somehow a distant threat. We have become such a global food commodity powerhouse over the last century, that it would be almost un-American to connect those dots. Except for the nearly 40 million people who suffer “food insecurity” in the United States, (the USDA’s official term for hunger.) Nearly half of those people are children. This says nothing of the two out of three Americans who are either overweight or clinically obese, a trend that could be greatly abated with a focused and sound nutrition policy. There’s just one small problem with that. To tackle issues of nutrition, you have to deal with the food and farming system.

Among the many issues that must surface to the top of the stack on the next president’s desk is that of changing our nation’s food and agriculture policy. If we look carefully at the great number of challenges we face as people, as nations, and as a world today—peak oil, climate change, biodiversity loss, and military conflict come to mind—we have to consider the vast impacts of industrial agriculture and food production. Our soils are being depleted at remarkable rates due to excessive plowing. Fresh water systems are in decline as they are overwhelmed by chemicals and agricultural wastes. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the world’s 20 billion domestic livestock generate nearly 20 percent of all greenhouse gases—that’s more than all global transportation impacts combined. The dominant 20th century method of intensive animal food production, the CAFO (confined animal feedlot operation), where animals are jammed into concentration-like factories, fed antibiotics and hormones, and generate unimaginable amounts of toxic waste, was recently deemed “unsustainable” by a three-year Pew Commission study (“Putting Meat on the Table”).

Ending the CAFO would mean the end of the all American meal. That of course might not be a bad thing, because we can’t simply continue eating or farming the way we have been.

As we contemplate a world with less fossil fuels, we can also contemplate a food system that is far more regionally and locally adapted. As we consider a world worth passing on to our kids, we can also imagine starting them out with a sound sense of where food comes from, how it is produced, and the difference between sound nutrition and excessive calories. In fact, we can imagine a healthy agriculture sector, producing an abundance and diversity of good foods as being the very foundation of a secure society, where people are not rioting on the streets, and where once productive farming valleys are not being converted into barren deserts.

But there is a hitch. And this is where the next president and administration comes in. While incredible work is being done at the grassroots at various levels around the country to build a new 21st century locally-oriented food system, it can’t be accomplished without a food and farm policy that allows it to flourish. Somehow, food and its just, humane, and ecologically sound production and distribution must be understood and addressed for what it is: one of the urgent issues of our time.

There are lots of intervention points along the way in which federal policy plays a defining role: 1) the Farm Bill, which sets land use policies and pumps tens of billions of dollars into the food and farming sectors every year; 2) the Child Nutrition Act, which spends nowhere nearly enough money on our school lunch program; 3) the medical establishment, which has yet to stand up and champion a sound nutrition policy as one of our best and most economically effective preventive health care strategies. There are dozens more. All must be explored.

Many seasoned veterans of federal policy caution that food policy is at best a creature that can only be changed incrementally around the edges. If you’re looking for revolution, don’t mess with the halls of Congress. The best way ahead, they argue, is at the local level without government assistance. This would be all well and good if the next administration decided to go out of the food and farming business altogether by abandoning its massive subsidy and tax programs. If Uncle Sam actually got out of the way there might be a fair playing field for the smaller scale producers. (It’s an idea that should be seriously considered—at least in a line item fashion.)

Alternatively, instead of shutting down the USDA, the next administration could take a 21st century view of food and farm policy and see it for what it can and should be: the basis of a “Make America Healthier” platform. This would include health in all its aspects: diversity of regionally adapted crops, fair prices and markets for all producers, practices that protect and conserve important resources, dignity for workers, a conservation ethic that respects all species, optimized local food systems region by region, and so on an on.

Since we won’t hear much about this in debates and on the campaign trail, we’re going to have to demand it ourselves. Because the health and wealth and well-being of our country is at stake. That is the task before us.