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 1, 2, 3, 4, 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.
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.