UCS Calls for a National Food Policy

Ideas in Action: Spring 2015

In a pathbreaking opinion piece in the Washington Post last fall, UCS Food and Environment Program Director and Senior Scientist Ricardo Salvador joined prominent food thinkers Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, and Olivier de Schutter in calling on President Obama to establish a national food policy. Since then, the idea has been endorsed by a growing number of scientists, food activists, legislators, journalists, and business and labor leaders.

Why do we need a national food policy? For one thing, the way we produce and consume food has a bigger impact on our health and well-being than any other activity. Consider, for instance, that the food industry is the largest sector of the U.S. economy. Or that our fossil fuel–dependent food and agriculture system is responsible for significant global warming emissions.

Equally important is the mounting evidence that our food system and the diet it encourages are causing incalculable damage to Americans’ health—including hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths each year. In just one key example, American children are expected to live shorter lives than their parents largely because a third of them will develop type 2 diabetes, a preventable disease linked to obesity.

Incoherent, Piecemeal Policies

Meanwhile, our government’s policies related to food are made piecemeal, under the oversight of eight separate federal agencies. Amid this incoherence, special interests thrive and the public good suffers.

The contradictions of these policies become clear as soon as you compare the federal recommendations for the American diet, known as MyPlate, with the federal government’s agricultural policies. While MyPlate recommends a diet of 50 percent vegetables and fruits, the federal government devotes less than 1 percent of farm subsidies to support the research, production, and marketing of these foods. Conversely, more than 60 percent of farm subsidies support the production of corn and other grains—food that is mostly fed to animals, converted to vehicle fuel, or processed into precisely the sort of junk food the government urges us to avoid.

How can one government advance two such diametrically opposed goals? By failing to recognize that an agricultural policy is not the same as a food policy—and that the former does not necessarily contribute to public health. Even worse, many U.S. agricultural policies were developed decades ago and are now obsolete and counterproductive, providing billions in public support to an industry that churns out a surfeit of unhealthy calories while simultaneously undermining the ability of farmers to make a living from their land.

A New Vision

So what might a national food policy look like? Among other things, it ought to ensure that public dollars are spent to serve the following goals:

  • all Americans have access to healthy food;
  • farm policies are designed to support public health and environmental objectives;
  • our food supply is free of toxic bacteria, chemicals, and drugs;
  • production and marketing of food are done transparently;
  • the food industry pays a fair wage to those it employs; and
  • the food system’s carbon footprint is reduced and the amount of carbon sequestered on farmland is increased.

In short, the policy would ensure that all Americans have access to food that is nutritious, affordable, and produced in a fair and sustainable way.