I’m always suprised when people ask me what I mean by “food politics.” What, they say, does politics have to do with food? Here’s a good example: European farm subsidies. These were originally supposed to promote farm production, but today the European Union drops $75 billion, at least a third of it for other purposes. As an investigative report in the New York Times explains, the biggest subsidies – just as in the U.S. – go to the wealthiest recipients. A typical small farmer in Romania gets $550. But the Queen of England and the Prince of Monaco get $700,000 or more, each, and Cargill, that needy company, got $14 million. And then there are subsidies like this one: €127,000 for Ligabue, a Venetian caterer, for sugar and dairy packets considered as exports because they are consumed on cruise ships? Why do I think politics enters into this somehow?
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Meatpoultry.com has collected President-Elect Obama’s statements about agriculture from his website (you will need to register – it’s free – to read this). As with much else about Obama’s views, these ideas sound hopeful. He will need much encouragement to follow through on some of these promises.
It’s a good one, with terrific articles by Michael Pollan on farm policy for the next administration, David Rieff on what to do about agriculture in Africa, and Mark Bittman on why food should be taken seriously. Read, think, and enjoy!
P.S. And for fun, check out Safire on the meaning of “locavore” and “functional food.”
Politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows. Today’s San Francisco Chronicle has the best article I’ve ever read on the farm bill, which is now making its way out of conference committees (see previous posts). Here’s how reporter Carolyn Lochhead starts out: “It is the rarest of moments. President Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are on a collision course over a giant farm bill, but it is Bush who is broadly aligned with liberal Bay Area activists pushing for reform, while the San Francisco Democrat is protecting billions of dollars in subsidies to the richest farmers.” The interest groups slated to get pieces of this $300 billion chunk of taxpayer dollars dare not complain about it, out of fear that a more rational public policy would be worse for them. That’s politics for you, at its most raw.
So the Wall Street Journal thinks doing anything about the “thicket of hard-to-cut programs” in the Farm Bill is hopeless. If anything, it looks like subsidies will go up. Reason #1: $80 million worth of agribusiness lobbying last year. Reason #2: this is an election year. If you aren’t up on the ins and outs of Farm Bill politics, this article is a good place to begin. Check out the interactive map and complain! It won’t hurt and it might help at some point.
So after all that fuss about nutrition standards in the Farm Bill (see previous post on the topic), the Senate dropped them from its version. So now advocates for school nutrition are back to square one. Here’s what the Washington Post has to say about this fiasco. On the bright side, this failure to act gives advocates a chance to get to work at the state level and put even better standards in place. Onward!
I can’t help getting caught up in the arguments about school nutrition standards, particularly because I was quoted in an article about them in the New York Times last week. I am very much of two minds on the subject:
On the one hand: My understanding is that Senator Harkin thinks that his plan for school nutrition standards is the best that can be expected in the current administration. Will the next Farm Bill do something better? I have no idea. So from a pragmatic standpoint, Harkin’s bill is worth supporting. It will get the worst foods out of most schools in most places.
On the other hand:
On the other hand:With that said, I personally do not favor setting up nutrient-based criteria for deciding which foods are in or out. I think such standards are a slippery slope. If you set those kinds of standards, food companies will simply formulate products to slip just under the cut points. Does a gram of sugar make that much difference? I don’t think so. My personal view is that schools shouldn’t sell competing foods at all and that vending machines should be removed from schools. Out! Vending machines didn’t used to be in schools and they don’t have to be there now. But, as I like to explain, I have tenure and I get to take principled positions on such matters.
And, if you read Portuguese, you can see further comments on this site.
And here’s what the New York Times editorial writers have to say about this issue.
So now the Senate has blocked action on the Farm Bill, perhaps to give President Bush a break so he won’t have to veto it, which is what he said he would do. As I suggested in my last post on the topic, the Bill is hopeless to understand: 1360 pages, 17 of them just for the Table of Contents. They should all be ashamed. It’s time to elect congressional representatives who represent the public interest and care about issues like sustainability and health. I wonder how we can do that?