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Obama's Food Policy

by: Jill Richardson

Sun Jan 04, 2009 at 15:29:08 PM PST


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Will we get a Prius in every garage and a farmers' market in every neighborhood as the Boston globe jokingly suggests in its article Is A Sustainable Food Strategy on Obama's Menu? The article leaves the reader with more questions and answers, such as:

Can a community organizer from Chicago support community supported agriculture? First, he must display the courage to defend what the likes of Michael Pollan have to say, without apology.

Another article, this one by Christopher Cook, author of Diet for a Dead Planet, specifically calls for Obama to put a number of objectives on his food policy to-do list. In A Food Agenda for Obama, Cook calls for:

1. New public investments targeting sustainable agriculture, defined as organic, small- to mid-sized, diversified farming.

2. New investments in local/regional food networks and foodsheds - to help build up the connections between farmers and consumers, to open up and expand new markets for organic farmers and those considering the transition; for more farmer's markets and food stores that feature local produce.

3. A moratorium on agribusiness mergers, and strenuous antitrust provisions and enforcement to protect what little is left of diversity in the food economy.

4. A moratorium on all new genetically modified (GMO) products, and an expansion of existing ones, and appointment of a blue-ribbon panel/commission to assess the impact of GMO foods on our environment and our health.

5. A moratorium on - and gradual phasing out of - concentrated animal feeding operations, aka factory farms, which are among the nation's top polluters of water and air, and breeders of widespread and virulent bacterial strains.

6. Dramatically expanded regulatory enforcement and staffing in the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to protect food safety and meat industry labor and environmental practices.

7. Slowing the hazardously fast meatpacking (and poultry) assembly line, to protect workers and consumers.

8. Incentives for small-scale urban, suburban, and rural farming ventures oriented toward diversified local food systems.

9. Bold public investment in a raft of public awareness campaigns that build support, and expand markets and demand, for sustainable alternatives such as urban agriculture and gardening, and reducing fast-food consumption.

More below...

Jill Richardson :: Obama's Food Policy
I'm 100% behind Cook's objectives. I fear that Obama is less supportive of them though - particularly the moratorium on GMOs. That said, Cook's list SHOULD be a gold standard for where we need to go in agriculture, and I'll add my own #10 to his top 10 list - Paying farmers for carbon sequestration instead of for yield (as the current subsidy system does), including a system to help farmers transitioning to organic methods that do sequester carbon make ends meet during their first two to four years of the transition.

In Agriculture's Next Big Challenge, George McGovern and Marshall Matz weigh in with some goals for Obama:

  • The primary goal of agriculture is to feed ourselves and those around the globe who lack America's productive resources.
  • We must not forget those who receive assistance through school breakfast and lunch programs, food stamps and nutritional supplements for low-income pregnant and nursing mothers and their young children. In poor, developing countries, more food assistance is needed to support the fight against AIDS.
  • Agriculture is key in our becoming less dependent on foreign oil by converting crops into biofuels and renewal energy.
  • We must accomplish the first three goals without plowing up environmentally fragile land.

Some of these ideas are good, like preserving environmentally fragile land. But this ultimately goes back to the fallacy that hunger is caused by lack of food. Here are the facts they ignore:

The world produces enough food to feed everyone. World agriculture produces 17 percent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 percent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories (kcal) per person per day (FAO 2002, p.9).  The principal problem is that many people in the world do not have sufficient land to grow, or income to purchase, enough food.
- Source

McGovern and Matz give away their true agenda when they quote the "father of the Green revolution" and then proceed to claim that organics cannot feed the world. They conclude with a familiar sounding theme:

We all want a safe, ubiquitous and inexpensive food supply. Even with the recent food price inflation, Americans still spend only 10 percent of their disposable income on food, the lowest in the world. A case can be made that our entire consumer economy is fueled by cheap food. There would not be as many cell phones and other conveniences if Americans had to spend 20 percent or more of their disposable income on food.

We need to get beyond ideology and depend more on science. We need to develop a new understanding of agriculture based on our larger goals if we are to craft a long-term food and farm policy that works. Agriculture has a responsibility to adjust and contribute to improving the environment. But let's stick to science and avoid an ideological debate about agricultural practices.

Calling for "science over ideology" is what you say when you are a shill for the biotech industry. Maybe shills for other industries use that line too - synthetic ammonia fertilizer, pesticides, ethanol, etc. The truth of the matter is that organic IS science, we DON'T need to find a fancy new way to produce more food (rather we need a way to distribute it to those who currently can't afford it), and the so-called scientific technologies like biotech and pesticides actually ignore the all-important science of ecology. As the Rodale Institute says - and backs up with science - organic IS the best way to feed the world.

Yet another take on Obama's food policy comes from the New York Times in Is a New Food Policy on Obama's List?. The article chronicles the NUMEROUS efforts to get Obama to embrace sustainable food, and how his corn-and-soybean-loving pick for Sec Ag leaves little room for hope. The key paragraph of the article is:

Although Mr. Obama has proposed changes in the nation's farm and rural policies and emphasizes the connection between diet and health, there is nothing to indicate he has a special interest in a radical makeover of the way food is grown and sold.

All in all, none of these articles touched on anything that Obama actually IS going to do. Based on Obama's platform, I expect him to support COOL (country of origin labeling), subsidy caps, and the packer ban. Unfortunately, he'll also support corn ethanol and GMOs. The one area where Obama appears to actually be a progressive is labor, and hopefully Hilda Solis (his labor secretary) will deliver a few items on Christopher Cook's wish list, like improved working conditions in meatpacking plants.

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I was expecting it for a while, but... (4.00 / 3)
The McGovern - Matz op-ed was really disappointing.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for George McGovern - the man has spent his life fighting for what's right, he's been a longtime strong advocate in the fight against hunger, and there's no question America and the world would be so much better off today if he had beaten the blatant criminal he ran against for the Presidency in '72...

But sadly, he's just wrong there, as you've pointed out.  I'd like to see an op-ed in that paper rebutting that specific point.  What are the chances we see it, though?

The truth of the matter is that organic IS science

Exactly.  I'm sick and tired of being painted as "anti-science", especially after having spent nearly a decade of my life working in New Jersey to clean up the deadly messes left behind by bad science.

We need to get beyond ideology and depend more on science.

So that's where the debate ends?  Anyone who doesn't unquestioningly accept biotech science experiments being rushed into the food system and onto our dinner tables is just an ideological extremist?

I'd think that especially someone like George McGovern would have been much more careful before painting those on the other side of an issue from him with such a broad brush...


this is the EXACT same line (4.00 / 2)
I heard repeated again and again at the biotech conference when I was there last summer.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Thanks... (4.00 / 2)
So that is one of the industry-approved quotes, eh?

The really sad thing is seeing George McGovern, unconsciously or not,  resort to the same smear tactics that once unfairly ruined him.


[ Parent ]
Does Obama get it?? (4.00 / 2)
I never really expected much out of Obama on the food & organic farming front.  He has no experience on a farm. He is strictly a city kid who went to some high-falutin' schools and then came back to inner-city Chicago to do community organizing work.  Don't get me wrong - I think we are going to be very happy with what he accomplishes over the next 8 years in many areas, I strongly supported him over the past year.  

But while he has read Michael Pollan and visited some farms on the campaign trail, I think to him it's all an intellectual controversy without any real existential meaning.  I don't believe he really "gets it" at the gut level, so I'm not especially surprised or disappointed.

Now I expect he will do some good things around the margins, but I'll be very surprised if he ventures into an hellacious fight with the agribusiness complex.  Yes, I'm pleased to see the pressure applied, the Jackson/Berry article is good (ha, as if anyone would be surprised by that!), I applaud the petitions (I've signed on one or two).  

But I don't see any reason why anyone should be disappointed by Obama's lack of response to us.  It's not in his makeup, not in his background.


he's being a politician, that's all (4.00 / 1)
I think on some level he DOES get it. Otherwise he wouldn't read Pollan and eat organic. But he's not passionate enough about it to risk his political neck over it.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
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