Catalyst Winter 2016

Re-Envisioning Our Broken Food System


Photo: © Creative Commons/Peter Beaumont (Flickr). Illustration: © UCS/Audrey Eyring

A road map to a healthier and more equitable national food policy

By Mark Bittman, Olivier De Schutter, Michael Pollan, and Ricardo Salvador

Mark Bittman, a food writer and former New York Times columnist, is currently a fellow at UCS and cofounder of The Purple Carrot, a vegan food startup; Olivier De Schutter, a professor of international human rights law at the Catholic University of Louvain, cochairs the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, and was the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food from 2008 to 2014; Michael Pollan teaches at the University of California–Berkeley’s graduate school of journalism, and is the author of eight books including In Defense of Food, which was recently adapted as a movie featured nationally on public television; Ricardo Salvador directs the Food and Environment Program at UCS, and is a former associate professor of agronomy at Iowa State University.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from the much longer “Memo to the Next President” published in Medium.com. The Union of Concerned Scientists, along with coalition partners, is working through the Plate of the Union campaign (see the box at bottom of page) to advance several of the key proposals discussed here.

Because of unhealthy diets in the United States, a century of progress to improve public health and extend life span has been reversed. Today’s children are expected to live shorter lives than their parents, in large part because a third of these children will develop type 2 diabetes, a preventable disease—formerly rare in children—that reduces life expectancy. At the same time, our fossil fuel–dependent food and agriculture system is responsible for a large share of global warming emissions and environmental degradation. And the exploitative labor practices of the farming and fast food industries contribute to income inequality and health disparities in America.

Diet-related chronic disease, food safety, marketing to children, labor conditions, wages for farm and food-chain workers, immigration, water and air quality, global warming emissions, and support for farmers: all these issues are connected to the food system. Yet government policy to address these problems is made piecemeal and overseen by eight different federal agencies. Current government policies and incentives reward production of too much of the wrong stuff, at great cost to natural resources and public health. Amid this incoherence, special interests thrive and the public good suffers.

Of course, reforming the food system will ultimately depend on a Congress that has, for decades, been beholden to agribusiness—one of the most powerful lobbies on Capitol Hill. As long as food-related issues are treated as discrete rather than systemic problems, congressional committees in thrall to special interests will be able to block change.

But the next president can break the deadlock by announcing an executive order that establishes a National Food Policy for the 21st Century. Such a policy would start with a declaration of vision: that government policies related to food are intended to produce a wholesome and healthful food supply for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds, while treating humans and animals fairly and compassionately and nurturing the ecosystems on which we depend. In other words, a food system that is healthy, green, affordable, and fair.

By laying out such a vision and officially acknowledging how interconnected these problems are, a national food policy can create momentum for reform. And the benefits would accrue across our society: just in terms of health care, for example, increasing national consumption of fruits and vegetables to meet the government’s current recommendations would save more than 100,000 lives from heart disease alone, not to mention $17 billion annually in associated health care costs.

What Would a National Food Policy Look Like?

A national food policy would, among other things, help ensure safe and fair-paying jobs for workers who harvest and process our food (such as these lettuce farmers in California), and help make fruits andvegetables more affordable for all Americans.
Photo: USDA

A national food policy could include a host of commonsense components that are broadly supported by the American public. Below are 15 features we’d like to see. For more detail about what a national food policy might include, visit www.ucsusa/food_and_agriculture or read our memo to the next president (from which this article is adapted) at Medium.com.

  1. Promote greater production of seasonal fruits and vegetables for regional markets by providing equitable access to credit and loan guarantees for all farmers (but particularly for young, beginning, and organic farmers, who have historically encountered barriers to government programs). Such measures would create, at minimum, 189,000 new jobs in local-food systems and $9.5 billion in new revenue for healthy foods.
  2. “Re-solarize” the food production system, weaning American agriculture from its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuels and vast monoculture through diversification of crops. This approach can reduce energy consumption and global warming emissions, enhance rather than degrade natural resources, improve food safety and security, and improve the quality of calories produced.
  3. Appoint a national food policy advisor charged with coordinating food policy across all government departments. This would ensure that agriculture policies no longer undercut (but instead support) efforts on public health, energy, climate change, and our professed foreign policy goal of helping low-income countries feed themselves.
  4. Redirect agricultural research and extension programs to investigate, develop, promote, and support regionally appropriate, regenerative, diversified farming systems based on agroecological principles. In addition, refocus the land grant university system to serve local and regional constituencies and their needs.
  5. Rethink livestock production by eliminating the routine non-medical use of antibiotics in animal agriculture and ending federal subsidies and regulatory loopholes for confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which would encourage the reintegration of animals onto farms. CAFOs should be recognized and regulated as the factories they are, subject to the same standards, regulations, and penalties as other industries that emit noxious products.
  6. Launch a “Farmer Corps” to educate a new generation of farmers and help put them on the land, combatting the rapidly aging farming population in the United States. (In 2012, the average U.S. farmer was 58 years old.)
  7. Use existing antitrust laws to restore competition to food markets at every level: from seeds, grain trading, and animal feeding to meatpacking and supermarkets.
  8. Establish a federal grain reserve, modeled on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, to help avoid destructively volatile swings in commodity prices.
  9. Ensure fair wages for farm labor sufficient to allow workers who harvest, process, prepare, and serve our food to have access to the same food they have helped to produce and deliver.
  10. Enforce existing worker safety rules throughout the food system. Give the Occupational Safety and Health Administration the resources it needs to protect food workers, from field to factory.
  11. Expand farmers markets by providing grants that allow towns and cities to build year-round, indoor/outdoor farmers markets, especially in underserved urban neighborhoods.
  12. Prioritize regional producers in federal food procurement (i.e., in contracts with the U.S. military, national parks, schools, prisons, etc.).
  13. Require municipal and institutional composting of food and yard waste, giving the compost to farmers and ranchers.
  14. Promote food education as an accepted part of the school curriculum, as President John F. Kennedy did for physical education. This effort could include gardens in schools, cooking lessons, renovation of school cafeterias, and a substantial increase in funding for the Child Nutrition Act in order to underwrite healthy, sustainably grown food.
  15. Support maximum transparency in food labeling with reconceived labels that make it simple to determine whether the food we buy is healthful, fair, and sustainable.

Recipe for a Healthier America

The sensible, widely popular components of a national food policy listed above highlight its potential. Such a plan is not a pipe dream. A new political constituency is forming around food issues. The old “farm vote” will soon be overtaken by a “good food” vote comprised not only of a new generation of young farmers, but also of the people they feed, a rapidly growing segment of the population who have begun to vote with their dollars—and with actual votes too—for a healthier, less exploitative, more humane food system. Today there is far more political support for nutrition programs than crop subsidies, reflecting the demographic and democratic reality that there are many more hungry, non-farming citizens than farmers.

Leadership and vision from the next U.S. president should be commensurate with the stakes involved, and would provide this president’s administration with an opportunity to take landmark executive action that could result in a historical legacy. As an initial step, the president should encourage House and Senate leadership to reconstitute their respective agriculture committees as “food and health committees,” with membership representative of the appropriate expertise and geographical diversity. The purview and mandate of these committees is too important to be left in the hands of a narrowly defined regional business interest group.

The U.S. government has never before had a national food policy, let alone one that seeks to align federal agricultural policies with national public health and environmental objectives. Were the next president to adopt such a policy, and by executive action establish the mechanisms for its implementation, the impact could be enormous on three of the most critical issues of our time: health care, climate change, and economic equality.


Get Involved: Support Our Call for Action on Food and Farms

Plate of the Union is a joint effort of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Food Policy Action, Food Policy Action Education Fund, and the HEAL Food Alliance. We’re mobilizing a broad range of Americans—including farmers, scientists, community activists, thought leaders, chefs, and ordinary citizens—to call on U.S. presidential candidates to take five commonsense steps to reform our food system:

  1. Stand with working families by committing your administration to ensuring that all Americans have access to healthy, affordable food.
  1. Keep our kids healthy by taking action to stop companies from marketing junk food to kids and putting an end to subsidies for processed junk food.
  1. Support farmers to grow the healthy food we need by pledging to realign agricultural subsidies to match the U.S. government’s fruit and vegetable recommendations and expand incentives for sustainable farming practices.
  1. Protect farm workers by ending exemptions from fair labor standards for them, raising the minimum wage for all food workers, and eliminating the subminimum wage for restaurant workers.
  1. Keep antibiotics working by supporting a ban on the practice of feeding antibiotics to farm animals that are not sick.

Learn more about our Plate of the Union campaign.