How much has our food system changed in 10 years time?
Recently, The New Food Economy published an article about Pollan’s assessment of the current state of our food system.
Summing up briefly what he says, there have been meaningful changes at the margins of our agriculture system. There are some notable improvements (in the Farm Bill) for public policy, consumer (eater) awareness has increased greatly, but the industrial food system remains largely intact.
As in 2006, when Pollan’s seminal book The Omnivore’s Dilemma came out, there remains a dearth of political leadership in Washington involving food and sustainability issues.
As I closely follow the 2016 presidential election, there’s very little public comment regarding agriculture by the main candidates themselves or as issued by the press.
Of the two major candidates running for president, Hillary Clinton is the only one who goes to some length to outline her public policy objectives. On Clinton’s website, of the roughly 2 dozen issues she addresses, the closest she gets to the mention of agriculture is her stance on humane treatment for livestock and indirectly her positions on climate change. That’s still a huge difference from her chief competitor because Industrial agriculture is a big driver of climate change. Donald Trump doesn’t believe in the science behind climate change and we can only surmise he’s not too keen about fundamentally changing our food system.
Casting all semblance of personal objectivity to the wind, in this particular election, choosing the right candidate has little to do with agriculture policy. I’m voting for the person that doesn’t denigrate women and minorities, is not a Putin admirer, doesn’t promise to build big, expensive walls to “make America great again,” and is a sane person and not likely to launch a thermo-nuclear war over some perceived slight. Yes, I’m with her mainly because I’m not with him.
Back to food. What I like about Michael Pollan is how he is able to connect all the interrelated dots. When we look at our dominant food system, we are poisoning the environment, mistreating farm animals (and sometimes workers), and harming public health. Agriculture also contributes about 20% of the total greenhouse gas emissions toward climate change.
As Pollan explains, effective public policy can address the underlying issues that impact these areas. For instance, if the government were responsible for delivering healthcare (the public option), not only would it lead to lower healthcare costs (as is true of Medicare), it would create a direct economic incentive for the government to protect public health more aggressively. It’s impossible to talk about creating an alternative food system without also addressing how people will be expected to pay more for better food. That too provides a role for government in shifting the government subsidies toward more environmentally friendly farming practices that’s healthier for farmers, livestock, for the environment, and for eaters. It also means, we must accurately determine the full cost of producing and distributing food and reduce the costs inflicted on society by destructive industrial agriculture practices.
But let’s get real. In the present state, most republicans refuse to publicly acknowledge that climate change even exists. It’s not a question for them of connecting the dots, they don’t see the dots to even connect.
We know that historically in this country, real change begins at ground level and over time spreads upward. We still seem far from the point where mainstream politicians will pick up the torch for food justice and promote a more eco-friendly food system. For those who can afford it, it’s possible to opt out for organic and locally produced food but none of us can escape the environmental and economic consequences of an unbalanced food system that is helping to destroy the planet.
In my view, here’s the bottom line. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, for those who believe in democracy, we must get big money out of politics in order to have a chance at creating sound public policy again. Until then, our chronic problems will continue to grow and fester. Even worse, it opens the door for a demagogue to be elected president.
That would be an unmitigated disaster.