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.
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Lucien Joppen, who writes for Voedingsmiddelen Industrie, a Dutch food business magazine, asked this question: What does the U.S. election of either Obama or McCain mean for food and health policy? Here’s what I told him in English:
If it is McCain, it is business as usual or – impossible as it may be to imagine – worse. If Obama is elected, things could get better. The decision to vote for Obama may be a matter of the triumph of hope over experience, but everyone I know who cares deeply about social issues wants him to win, and by a huge margin. I do too.
The history of American politics teaches that once elected, candidates do not necessarily keep campaign promises so let’s not deal with the details. Both candidates have issued vague health care proposals and neither seems willing to take on insurance companies and demand what experts believe is absolutely necessary to fix the system: develop a single-payer health care program with universal coverage. If McCain is elected, we have no reason to expect improvement. If Obama wins, we can hope that he will use his mandate to push through a single-payer system.
As for food policy, the big question is who is appointed to lead the USDA. Historically, the USDA has promoted the interests of agribusiness. It still does, but the agency is now also responsible for everything connected to food policy: farm subsidies, land use, organic standards, international food trade, food assistance to low-income families, and dietary advice to the public. If McCain is elected, expect to see another USDA Secretary who represents agribusiness. I do not know who is advising Obama about agricultural issues (he has not asked me, alas), but let’s hope his advisers have a broad view of food and nutrition policy that includes social concerns about food security and food equity. Maybe we will get lucky. Let’s hope for fair weather and a huge voter turnout. Every vote counts, and—according to this video—mine is especially valued (and yours too!).
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.”
This week’s Eating Liberally Q and A is about my talk at a conference run by Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia a couple of weeks ago. I had no idea that it was possible to cause so much consternation in such brief remarks (we were allotted four minutes), but it elicited a quite lengthy and angry rebuttal from Professor Sachs. He took strong issue with my view that Capitalist economics might not help African agricultural development because farmers cannot afford to buy patented seeds, fertilizer, and machinery. The lack of agricultural development seems to me to be a social rather than a technical problem and, therefore, one that requires social rather than technical solutions. This seems pretty obvious to me, but not everyone agrees, apparently.
The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, of which I was a member, released its report today: Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America. This was a two-year investigation of the effects of our current system of intensive animal production on the environment, communities, human health, and the animals themselves. For me, this was an opportunity to visit huge dairy farms, feedlots, pig farms, and facilities housing 1.2 million chickens. The big issues? Antibiotics and waste. The big surprise? Laws exist; they just aren’t being enforced. This was quite an education.
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.
According to a report in Food Chemical News, Robert Paarlberg, a professor of political science at Wellesley who has written extensively about agricultural policy, says “environmental populists” in the United States and the European Union have imposed on Africa, their [our?] favoring of “small, traditional farms that grow organic crops and heirloom varieties…[equating] agricultural science with large farms, mistreatment of animals, enrichment of agribusiness corporations, and unpalatable and unhealthy food.” The resulting “hostility to science-based farming” has been devastating to Africa and other impoverished regions. How? “No African country allows cultivation of biotech crops except South Africa.” Is biotechnology the solution to Africa’s agricultural problems? As I read it, the technology is still in its infancy and still has a long way to go (see the March 20 Nature article on development of drought-resistant crops). But then, I still think Africa’s agricultural problems would be easier to solve with social, not necessarily technological, changes. But I guess that makes me an environmental populist. How about you?
Earl Butz, former Secretary of Agriculture in the Nixon administration, died last week at the age of 98. He had a long and varied career, but in the context of food systems he is famous for having revolutionized U.S. agricultural policy. Instead of paying farmers not to produce food, he encouraged farmers to produce as much food as possible. They did, and indeed produced so much corn that new uses had to be found for it. Voila! High fructose corn syrup! The movie, King Corn, includes an interview with Mr. Butz. He was proud of having so greatly increased U.S. food production. Indeed, the number of calories in the U.S. food supply increased from about 3,200 per day in the mid-1970s to the present 3,900 per day, with all the consequences that I discuss in Food Politics and in What to Eat. His passing marks the end of an era.