Food-eaters are not a special interest group

You probably don’t think much about government as you push your shopping cart down the aisle of your local supermarket. But nothing the government does affects your life more often and more directly than food policy. What food is available, what it costs, what’s in it, what you can find out about it, and whether it’s safe — the government has a hand in all of that.

Naively, you might expect a democratic government’s food policy to work out one of two ways: Either food would be hotly debated in every election, or our common interest as eaters would produce a completely non-partisan pro-consumer consensus.

Strangely, though, our government has a pro-food-industry policy which is often anti-consumer, and that policy is hardly ever a major issue. Candidates constantly try to make hay out of invisible threats like Iran’s nuclear weapons program or even completely imaginary ones like the death panels of Obamacare. But when was the last time you heard a politician pledge to do something about the growing rate of salmonella infections?

Obesity and policy. Everybody knows that America has a obesity problem. Because of it, we spend more on healthcare and die younger anyway. But to the extent this issue gets public attention at all, it is framed as an individual character problem — we don’t have the discipline to eat carrots instead of carrot cake — rather than as a problem with the way our food is produced and marketed.

But isn’t it strange how the American character degraded so suddenly since the mid-1970s (when the average American was 18 pounds lighter)? Shouldn’t a major cultural change take longer than that?

The media inundates us with stories about how to diet, but seldom touches the government’s role in subsidizing fats and sugars over healthier fruits and vegetables. Here’s the exception that proves the rule: Peter Jennings’ “How to Get Fat Without Really Trying” from 2003. (Here are the ad-free links for parts 1234, and 5.) Would I have to go back to 2003 to find a major-network piece about dieting?

Free enterprise? Any threat to our current food system is quickly labeled as an attack on free enterprise: If industry produces something and people want to buy it, what’s the problem? If it’s bad for them, that’s their own fault. They should eat something else.

But the current food system has little to do with free enterprise. Michael Pollan explains:

So much of our food system is the result of policy choices made in Washington. The reason we’re eating from these huge monocultures of corn and soybeans is that that’s the kind of farming that the government has supported, in the form of subsidies, in the form of agricultural research. All the work is going to produce more of  those so-called commodity crops that are the building blocks of fast food.

GMOs. As an example, ask yourself: When did you decide to start eating genetically-modified organisms (GMOs)?  Probably you didn’t. Probably you ate products made from genetically modified corn and soybeans for a long time before you realized that you were eating them at all. Maybe you still don’t realize you eat GMOs; but unless you’re totally obsessive about where your food comes from, you do eat them.

That also is due to government policy: Kellogg’s doesn’t have to tell you whether their corn flakes have GMOs. They like it that way, whether you like it or not.

The basic research behind GMOs was funded by governments; the profit goes to corporations like Monsanto. The risks have been passed on to the consumer without anyone asking the consumer. That’s not how free enterprise is supposed to work.

And who knows? Maybe there are no risks. Maybe eating GMOs is as harmless as Monsanto claims. Maybe GMOs aren’t responsible for systemic effects like the collapse of bee colonies.

None of the claims against GMOs have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Nor will they be, most likely, because neither government nor industry has much interest in funding that research. (You can bet the research being done at Beeologics won’t implicate Monsanto, because Monsanto just bought them.)

The Farm Bill is a Food Bill. Your power as a consumer is not going to change the food system until your power as a voter makes it changeable. To change food policy, Pollan says, we need to change the Farm Bill that goes through Congress every five years.

But it isn’t really just a bill for farmers. It really should be called the Food Bill, because it is the rules for the system we all eat by. And those rules are really lousy right now, and they need to be changed.

That 5-year process is almost complete now, so the positive changes that are still possible are minimal. Absent a vocal popular movement, food is a perfect issue for lobbyists: The affected industries have a lot of money to spend, and the general public isn’t paying attention.

We’re not going to raise a vocal popular movement in the next few weeks. Most people don’t care and don’t know why anyone thinks they should care. And that’s what needs to change between now and 2017.

I’m still in the process of raising my own consciousness about this stuff, so I can just point in a general direction. (If you’ve got better advice, make a comment.) I’ve just added Food Politics to the list of blogs I cruise regularly. (Worthwhile recent posts pointed me to the report How Washington went soft on childhood obesity and explained where that supermarket sushi comes from.) Suggestions of other blogs/authors/websites are welcome.

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Comments

  • Sheri Monk  On May 28, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    HBO recently came out with an excellent comprehensive four-part series looking at obesity. GMOs wasn’t mentioned, but certainly other culprits were, including failed ag policy of the U.S. with its subsidies that encourage monoculture and the crops that are ultimately bad for us.
    Additionally, it addresses the corporate culture attacking our children with constant messages, and the lack of transparency when it comes to nurtitional advertising.
    An excellent book to read is The End of Hunger, which also deals specifically with many of the points made in this post.

  • Bob Lee  On May 28, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    It’s not GMOs that scare me, it’s the lack of diversity that occurs when high volume, government subsidized GMOs crowd other foods out of the market. A lack of diversity in the diet makes the entire population more susceptible to disease. Eat local, organic produce. You’ll feel better and you’ll be supporting your local economy too.

    • weeklysift  On May 31, 2012 at 7:29 am

      I mentioned GMOs as an easy example of what’s wrong with the politics of our food system. But I’m still agnostic about whether they’re safe to eat or not. My intuition says most of them probably are safe, but that someday one won’t be, and we won’t know the difference until the bodies start piling up.

      That’s how it has been with food additives. Most have been harmless, but then artificial butter flavor starts causing popcorn lung. Nobody knew the difference until workers making microwave popcorn started dropping dead.

  • kim siebert  On May 29, 2012 at 7:51 am

    Thank you, Doug, for writing about this vital issue!

    In an effort to shed light on the subject, the Bedford Farmers’ Market will be presenting 3 programs in the coming months using TED talks regarding food production –and the government’s role in how our food is produced— as the anchor for panel and group discussions.

    Here are the talks we’ve chosen:
    Robyn O’Brien: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rixyrCNVVGA

    Roger Doiron: “My Subversive Garden Plot”: http://www.ted.com/talks/roger_doiron_my_subversive_garden_plot.html

    Dan Barber: “How I Fell In Love With a Fish”: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_barber_how_i_fell_in_love_with_a_fish.html

    There are, in all, 22 food themed TED talks.

    You can follow announcements about the programs on Facebook ( Bedford Farmers’ Market) or by subscribing to the newsletter via the website http://www.bedfordmarket.org

    NOTE: Due to spotty attendance over the last 4 years, the Bedford Farmers’ Market will not hold a weekly market this season, just a one-day event on Sunday, July 22. One of the reasons we are developing programs about the food industry is because consumers need to know WHY they want to buy locally grown foods and WHY they would take every opportunity to frequent farmers’ markets or– even better– grown their own.

    Know your farmer!

    • weeklysift  On May 31, 2012 at 7:20 am

      Kim Siebert: Sorry if your comment didn’t appear right away. All the links in it tripped some spam filter so that it required my approval, which I didn’t realize immediately.

  • DJS  On May 29, 2012 at 9:09 am

    This is a topic I’ve been concerned about for many years. Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma should be required reading for all. The documentary Forks Over Knives is also good, as is their website forksoverknives.com. In addition to the concern over the quality of food, it’s just plain scary that large corporations control so much of the food supply.

  • Kenneth  On June 4, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    I’m glad to see you adding food politics to your portfolio, Doug. I grew up in an agricultural region that I now disapprove of politically–subsidized water, sugar allotments, cattle feed lots, the whole shebang–and so I care about the subject. I do encourage you to investigate and choose a consistent definition of “GMO.” It’s a pet peeve of mine that all sorts of people throw it around without defining what they mean, and people use it to ride all sorts of hobby horses.

    For example: Does GMO mean that the crop contains genes from another species? Then every bit of wheat we eat (and have eaten for hundreds if not thousands of years) is GMO, as well as corn. And there are people who say that wheat and corn are not good for us to eat for that reason. I think discussions about food and agriculture policy (and ethics) deserve more care than that.

  • Adele Hite, MPH RD  On August 6, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    I can’t believe I missed this post the first time around, but getting your food politics insights from Marion Nestle is getting your perspectives on race relations in the US from Bill O’Reilly. While Nestle will wring her hands about corporate responsibility, she had nothing to say about the role public health nutrition advocates have played in our current health crisis, maybe because she is one? The rapid rise in obesity in the US began immediately following the creation of national dietary recommendations to reduce consumption of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar, and salt and to increase intake of grains, cereals, and vegetable oils–recommendations that Marion Nestle not only supports, but helped to institutionalize (as editor of the 1988 Surgeon General’s report on diet and health). Although I wouldn’t say that these recommendations *caused* our current health crisis, they were created to prevent obesity and chronic disease and in that regard they have certainly failed in their mission. But they are never, ever questioned. And they should be, because they weren’t based on science in the first place (although people like Nestle make sure that scientific controversy and dissent is excluded from the food reform conversation): http://eathropology.com/2012/11/13/not-just-science-how-the-usdahhs-got-stuck-in-the-past/

  • Bobby Lee  On November 24, 2013 at 11:47 am

    Huh? Looks like the spammers have broken into your blog, Doug.

Trackbacks

  • By Enemies of Capitalism « The Weekly Sift on May 28, 2012 at 1:25 pm

    […] Food-eaters are not a special interest group. Nothing the government does affects you as often and as directly as food policy. So in a democracy, you would expect either that food policy is a perennial campaign issue, or that a pro-consumer consensus takes food out of partisan politics completely. That’s not what has happened. […]

  • […] posted here: Food-eaters are not a special interest group « The Weekly Sift This entry was posted in Blog Search and tagged candidates, government, hay, industry, iran, […]

  • […] A great post on the food policy. Finally, somebody is trying to attract everybody’s attention to how unhealthy the food we eat is. Instead of quasi-progressive blabber on fat acceptance, let’s have a movement of no acceptance to the junk we are being sold under the guise of food. […]

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    […] week’s most popular post. Food-eaters are not a special interest group got 166 views. The most-clicked link was to the blog Food […]

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    […] I’ve occasionally pointed out before, our food system has gotten really crazy. A new book Foodopoly describes it as an hourglass: lots […]

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