06 November 2008

What does an Obama win mean for the U.S. food supply?

Hey, in the spirit of this momentous election, I thought it might be nice to consider what this will mean for our diets, the food crisis, and food policy in general. This came from Ali over at The Ethicurean:

What does an Obama win mean for the U.S. food supply?

We heard plenty of talk about Wall Street and Main Street. We heard about $150,000 wardrobes, Joe the Plumber, Bill Ayers, socialism, and cynicism. But one thing we didn’t hear much about in this election season was food and farms.

According to Speech Wars, between April and October, John McCain uttered the word “agriculture” only twice, and “nutrition” just once. Barack Obama did slightly better, referring to “agriculture” twelve times and “nutrition” four times. He gave farms a passing mention in his speech at the Democratic National Convention in August. But let’s face it: for the most part, food was a quiet issue, sacrificed to our discussions about race and religion, gender and sexism, oil and bailouts.

Meanwhile, food prices continued to rise. Our nation continued to lose farms daily. We continued to spend billions of dollars treating lifestyle diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Rural towns continued to wither. Fertilizer runoff continued to damage our drinking water.

There’s no way around it: the Obama administration will need to address food issues head-on.
Last month, Michael Pollan published a sweeping letter to the next president, Farmer in Chief, in the New York Times. After Pollan’s article was published, the American Farmland Trust noted that “there is no topic of greater importance than the issues [Pollan] raises…it is time to elevate these issues to their rightful place on our national agenda.”

Turns out Obama might agree; Obama read Pollan’s article and even worked it into discussions of energy policy.

So what might we expect from an Obama administration when it comes to food policy? Maybe quite a bit. In his plan for rural America, he lays out a number of policy positions that are a departure from the status quo. Obama:

  • Supports subsidies as a safety net, but calls for a $250,000 payment limitation and closing of loopholes, so that the program supports family farmers, not corporate agribusiness.
  • Supports regulation of CAFOs (factory livestock operations).
  • Wants to enforce anti-trust laws that so that smaller farmers can compete against large-scale meatpackers.
  • Wants to cap the size of agricultural businesses that can receive government funds for environmental cleanup so that taxpayers don’t subsidize cleanup for large, polluting corporations.
  • Wants to increase support for organic agriculture and local food systems by helping farmers with organic certification/compliance costs.
  • Wants to provide incentives to encourage and support new farmers, land conservation, renewable energy on the farm, and microenterprise for farmers and other rural Americans.
  • Calls for greater food safety surveillance and communications.
  • Plans to encourage local foods in schools.
  • Supports providing farmers with incentives that will prevent agricultural runoff.
What about pesky ethanol, the energy source that is great for the Corn Belt, but that many say leads to higher food prices and ultimately uses more energy than it creates? (Note: Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman called ethanol “a terrible mistake”, and Jeff Goodell, writing in Rolling Stone, called ethanol “dangerous, delusional bullshit”). To the disappointment of many environmentalists (like, say, me), Obama has supported ethanol from the start. In recent days, he has referred to corn ethanol as a necessary path to more eco-friendly cellulose ethanol. Some folks, however, have said the corn-to-cellulose dialogue is not realistic, and is merely intended to prop up corn companies like ADM that have a lot invested in the system.

Given his Farm Belt connections and the importance of his win in the Iowa caucus to his legitimacy as a presidential contender, it’s unlikely he could have taken any other position on ethanol. Still, we should call upon him to fulfill his election-night promise to always be honest about the challenges we face. In the coming months, let’s talk, openly, about the challenges of ethanol.

It’s worth reading the plan of our next president. You can find it in PDF here.

Obama’s plan calls for profound changes to our food and farm policy. These changes could lead to a healthier, safer food supply, stronger local economies, and the return to common-sense agricultural systems that are good for our children, our bodies, our planet, our national future, and our world.

Yet Obama will take the helm of an imperfect nation, one where stunningly powerful forces conspire to resist change. To transform his vision into reality — to defeat these forces — he will need our help: our voices, our commitment, our passion, and our strength. If we want better policy, we must recognize that change didn’t come on November 4, that the real work lies ahead, for all of us — not only those of us who supported Obama, but also those who did not. We must get involved not merely by meeting online, but also by getting out in our own communities to reshape this country, as he said, block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

On the night of his historic victory, President-Elect Obama reminded us that the true genius of America is simply this: that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

It won’t be easy. But more important, it won’t be done without us.


Mark said...

A heck of a post, Stephanie. I've read it now several times. And there is much there to inspire hope.

We know that the removal of the the people from their food sources invariably makes it more likely that a society will fail. It is unrealistic to expect that all large farms can be broken into family-managed units, but agribusiness clearly needs to be examined within the context of existing, decent antitrust laws.

Most importantly, the author is correct in noting that the work is yet to be done and will require many minds and hands.

josie said...

I agree with Mark - great post!
I loved this food perspective and how it moves into fuel, green, safety and economic issues... food is VERY important. We take it for granted but blogs like this help us see what's really going on. And this sounds like good changes are coming our way...

Thanks doll.

Steve said...

Nice one here, Stephanie.

Reading this post was an education.

Pollan is certainly the movement's guru, and Obama would do well to listen to him.

When Obama first began dropping hints about his plans to expand the size and the role of the federal government, (welfare state? how about welfare nation?) everyone knew that massive farm subsidies would be part of that. As if government spending can solve everything, even a food crisis. In the latest issue of "The Economist", there is a good article warning about the error of this logic- they call it the "New Green Deal".

Most economists worldwide agree that subsidies are not the way to go--look at ethanol in the USA, and wind power in Germany as two examples of huge subsidy failures.

I guess the alternative is to let the free market take over and set prices. But we see where the free market has recently taken us.

I guess I have no answers either. Just cynicism.

Anyway. I dig it.


Stephanie said...

Thanks Mark, Josie, Steve,

I agree with all of you too. Obama is showing great promise as one who has the ability and political will to, at the very least, listen to many of the experts in the field of food policy. Hopefully he will be able to implement some of these initiatives that will make a difference in our failing current food distribution system.

I understand your skepticism, Steve, about trusting more government involvement, as well as no longer trusting the free market. As we have recently witnessed, the federal government may need to play a more active role in many areas in order to undo some of the damage that has been done as a result of a mismanaged, unregulated not-really-free market. Hopefully we can get back to an environment where the market is allowed to function organically (no pun intended), and that government intervention will be limited and temporary. Whether this new administration can be trusted not to corrupt the system further remains to be seen, eh? I'm feeling hopeful.

As far as food policy is concerned, I am hoping that the government will provide these new incentives for farmers to engage in more sustainable and fair practices, as well as provide incentives for retailers making it easier for consumers to purchase organic and local. It is up to us as consumers to make smart choices, but we need to have access to these choices.

I'm also hoping that we redefine our "free trade" agreements to at least include new provisions that protect small farmers and farm workers around the world by ensuring fair trading prices as well as responsible labor and safety practices.

I'm going to have a look at that Economist article, Steve.