Recently, The Washington Post featured a piece calling for a national food policy. It started off with the statement that food impacts every sector of the economy and the lives of every person in the country and therefore it is essential that it be regulated by a national policy. The first idea we can agree with, regarding the second though, many may have reservations. The writers then go on to assert that the food system has caused “incalculable” harm to the health of people and the environment, and such harm would warrant waging a war in response, if it were the act of a foreign power. Yes, there us much that needs a strong effort: from the obesity crisis to hunger in our communities; fair working conditions for farm workers to the challenge of growing food while facing climate disruption but we could surely agree on ways to find solutions in a productive way without call to hostilities.
And exactly how would the national food policy tackle the situation (first step, of course, would be to nominate a Food Czar!)? The recommended objectives are:
- to assure access to healthful food for all: no disagreement there although how the access would be ensured remains to be determined
- support public health and environmental objectives: ditto
- climate resilience: how? not discussed. Would the application of biotechnology be considered an option, for example?
- care for livestock: agreed
- “our food supply is free of toxic bacteria, chemicals and drugs” ,which looks very much like “organic or nothing”
- “Food marketing sets children up for healthy lifestyles by instilling in them a habit of eating real food”: some confusion here, children acquire eating habits in the context of home and family. As a parent, I cannot imagine letting a corporation teach my children what to eat, that is my responsibility and most parents would agree.
- Production and marketing are transparent and the food industry pays a fair wage: while laudable, this refers to the food processing stage, what about farmers and farm workers?
- To increase carbon sequestration on farmland and reduce the food system’s carbon footprint: what changes or innovations this might require in agriculture are not discussed.
The first thing that stands out is the consumer centric nature of the demands. It makes demands about how workers should be paid, livestock should be cared for and how agriculture should respond to climate change. What, one wonders, would those who grow food actually think about this? How would they define a food policy?
And there we come to a core question: what is a “food policy” anyway? The piece states that “an agriculture policy is not the same as a food policy” but then neither is a food consumption policy a true food policy. If we want to chart out the path ahead for the food system, we need to take into account both the growers and the consumers of food, and reconcile these interests instead of pitting them against each other. A long argument is made on how and why the government needs to put a policy in place but it mainly comes down to dismantling the “agricultural-industrial” complex. That is a good objective but that alone cannot fix the food system.
No industry can flourish if there is no demand for their products and that demand comes from the consumers. If there is a demand for mashed potatoes in a box, then that is what we will find on the shelves. Of course we should be boiling and mashing our own potatoes, but for that, deep rooted lifestyle changes are required, changes which cannot simply be mandated by policy, and changes which, if we are honest, we are rather reluctant to make. Getting back from work only to have to ferry the kids to classes and practice games or even to have to go to a second job to make ends meet leaves little time for cooking. We need a discussion and changes in why we are living this way and how we can make changes. You can mandate whatever food policy you like but the basic question is how do I find the time to cook? And I say this from the experience of someone who does cook everyday. It is hard, and it is exhausting, it is nothing like the cooking shows on TV, that is for sure. So blaming the food industry for all our problems is not sufficient for change.
This gap in perceptions was highlighted at another event convened by the New York Times to discuss the future of food which initially had no farmer or rancher involved in the discussions! Once this was rectified, a participating farmer was able to urge the panelists, to involve farmers in the discussion on food, a sad disconnect! But it was encouraging to learn that there was at least an awareness of the need to work together. The food movement seems to have fallen into an us vs the food companies pattern, but in reality any successful food movement would need to include everyone: those who grow, process and sell, and consume food. Yes, food impacts everyone and everything and it is precisely for that reason that there are no easy answers here, the solutions are complex and everyone has to make an effort.
Finally, a national food policy will find it increasingly constrained by outside factors. Climate disruption is impacting agriculture everywhere and lack of food is expected to spark social unrest and large scale migration of people from affected areas. The struggle for resources could lead to actual wars, not just ones that can be debated in newspaper columns. An effective food policy will build a path forward which is able to respond to climate change and achieve goals of conservation and food production for the planet’s inhabitants at the same time. So it might be tempting to reach for avocados for that healthy lunch salad but it is also important to remember that it embodies a cost in terms of depleting water resources in another country that has to be accounted for as we set policy goals.
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