What issue does Romney mention three times a day but never during debates? What can be found on the table in the first family’s dining room, but not in President Obama’s platform?
I hope you’ve already eaten. Because I’m talking about food and food system reform.
Why, you ask, should politicians put food on the agenda? Aren’t there more pressing issues, like healthcare reform, energy dependence or JOBS? Both candidates have big plans to fix these problems. But so far they’ve failed to acknowledge that these plans are unlikely to succeed without addressing the structural flaws of our food system.
Take healthcare, for example. The Center for Disease Control estimates that heart disease, cancer and strokes account for half of American deaths every year. A third of adults are now obese. These diseases are quite literally fed by our government’s agricultural subsidies, which make high fructose corn syrup a cheap, ubiquitous source of flavor in processed foods.
If considered holistically, the menu price of a Big Mac doesn’t nearly account for associated external costs: the obesity epidemic, pesticide runoff, depletion of soil nutrients, the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and so on. These are the true externalities, or unvalued costs, of our industrial food system.
U.S. federal policies have long enabled and perpetuated these negative effects. Basic public-sector economics tells us that goods that produce negative externalities can and should be taxed in order to lower consumption and reduce pollution (or other negative effects). Conversely, goods that provide positive externalities should be subsidized so that society can reap even more benefits. Why, then, is our government so committed to huge agricultural subsidies that incentivize harmful and unsustainable practices?
The answer is complicated, but mostly boils down to money and power. Cheap food has become good politics. Organizations such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association have the power to influence consumer perceptions without necessarily having consumer’s best interests in mind. The American Farm Bureau, Monsanto, Kraft and other agribusinesses contribute millions of dollars to political campaigns each year. Interestingly, these food industry giants are more partisan than you might expect; during the 2012 election cycle, close to three quarters of campaign donations from agribusiness went to Republicans. Regardless, challenging Big Food would be a formidable task, and neither party sees it as a worthwhile risk.
However, there are grains of hope; the political landscape of food is quickly changing. Notably, Michelle Obama has become the food movement’s greatest ally in Washington. Her “Let’s Move!” campaign has moved beyond elementary school gym class by emphasizing the links between food, public health and the economy. The first lady takes a comprehensive approach to fighting obesity by empowering consumers, making healthy foods more affordable and involving parents and healthcare providers in nutrition education.
The state of California has also emerged as a leader in progressive food action. Next month, voters in Richmond, Calif. could approve the nation’s first city-wide soda tax, meant to help offset the health costs of sugary beverages. This November Californians will also vote on the highly controversial Proposition 37, a measure that would require food companies to label genetically modified foods.
Indeed, controversy abounds! Ask someone why he or she is vegan/flexitarian/locavore/carnivore, and brace yourself for a litany of opinions about food production. For example, I’ve yet to mention Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations and animal welfare. Don’t even get me started on bovine methane belches. And as a feminist, how should I view the idea that the invention of microwave dinners gave women more control over their schedules and professional lives? There’s no end to the types of conversations you can have with people who feel strongly about food.
This is the beauty and the curse of the “food movement.” The many lenses through which people view food lend the movement a diverse constituency, but also often prevent it from becoming a unified force.
This past Wednesday was National Food Day. To celebrate, Duke’s Real Food Campaign hosted a dinner celebration. Provisioned by local business Green Planet Catering, the event was meant to raise awareness for what we call “real food.” Like Italy’s “Slow Food” movement, the Real Food Campaign aims to address the full breadth of humans’ relationships to food. It is a reconciliation of nutrition, gastronomy, geography, ecology and philosophy. It is an acknowledgment that “real” food should nourish not only our bodies, but also our families, communities, animals and the earth as well.
In this country we are lucky; we take for granted the fact that we live in a place without food riots or widespread famine. But our processed-and-packaged status quo cannot last indefinitely, nor can it carry on without serious long-term consequences.
So I urge you: At your next meal, take a minute to wonder where your food comes from. As you swipe away your food points, consider the true costs of the food you buy. Read everything you can about the food industry, get freaked out and then tell your friends. The more we talk about food sustainability, the more politicians will too.
Hannah Colton is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Friday. You can follow Hannah on Twitter @ColtonHannah.