The New President's Plans for Food Policy?

(PHOTO: "Do you think he's alive???" shot by Kevin Law.)

Over at Ethicurean, there's an extensive post exploring what the newly elected American president might do differently about food, farms, and related systems of energy and technology in the United States:

According to Speech Wars, between April and October, John McCain uttered the word “agriculture” only twice, and “nutrition” just once. Barack Obama did slightly better, referring to “agriculture” twelve times and “nutrition” four times. He gave farms a passing mention in his speech at the Democratic National Convention in August. But let’s face it: for the most part, food was a quiet issue, sacrificed to our discussions about race and religion, gender and sexism, oil and bailouts.

Meanwhile, food prices continued to rise. Our nation continued to lose farms daily. We continued to spend billions of dollars treating lifestyle diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Rural towns continued to wither. Fertilizer runoff continued to damage our drinking water.

There’s no way around it: the Obama administration will need to address food issues head-on.

Last month, Michael Pollan published a sweeping letter to the next president, Farmer in Chief, in the New York Times. After Pollan’s article was published, the American Farmland Trust noted that “there is no topic of greater importance than the issues [Pollan] raises…it is time to elevate these issues to their rightful place on our national agenda.”

Turns out Obama might agree; Obama read Pollan’s article and even worked it into discussions of energy policy. So what might we expect from an Obama administration when it comes to food policy? Maybe quite a bit. In his plan for rural America, he lays out a number of policy positions that are a departure from the status quo.

A detailed list of what we know about Obama's likely changes in food policy follows, read the whole post here: What does an Obama win mean for the U.S. food supply? (Ethicurean)


  1. Generally speaking, when someone prefaces a statement with “There’s no way around it”, he’s shouting into the wind.

  2. Stop subsidizing agribusiness! Starting with ethanol (code word: “biofuels”)

    End the tariffs and trade restrictions on imported agricultural products so that the United States can engage in both-benefit growth with agriculture in South America and Africa.

    Put the money saved on subsidies into basic research (that any company can competitively implement, patent-free) for energy technologies such as thermal solar, hot dry rock geothermal, and for automobiles: compressed natural gas (CNG).

  3. From the article:

    What about pesky ethanol, the energy source that is great for the Corn Belt, but that many say leads to higher food prices and ultimately uses more energy than it creates? … To the disappointment of many environmentalists (like, say, me), Obama has supported ethanol from the start. In recent days, he has referred to corn ethanol as a necessary path to more eco-friendly cellulose ethanol. Some folks, however, have said the corn-to-cellulose dialogue is not realistic, and is merely intended to prop up corn companies like ADM that have a lot invested in the system.

    And so continues one branch of socialism for the rich.

    Agricultural subsidies are bad for tax payers (and we have a massive debt) and they’re bad for the truly impoverished farmers of the world who really have no other economic recourse. While farming in the United States continues mostly as a nostalgia for “farm life”, yet at the same time, the reality is that it transfers wealth into the pockets of ADM, ConAgra, Monsanto, and Altria (formerly Philip-Morris).

  4. Cut the subsidies, but come up with some system of rewarding small scale, local and even organic farming. That whole world o small scall farming is a real and growing entity. Also, encourage urban farming more and more. Even if it just means patches of basil and parsley, it’s something.

    And also, truly figure out a way to get corn syrup out of every damned thing. Seriously, American sodas are filled with that goop. And the only way you can get real soda with real sugar is to buy organic, or but imported. If that means cutting farm subsidies, then sobeit. It’s sick that they still exist when we’re facing so many other issues in the world.

  5. And also, truly figure out a way to get corn syrup out of every damned thing. Seriously, American sodas are filled with that goop.

    Because of protectionist tariffs and quotas on importing sugar, to keep domestic sugar prices artificially high, while at the same time corn, wheat, and soy get huge government subsidies, so corn is broken down into chemical components and reformulated into everything — like high-fructose corn syrup — because it’s artificially cheap.

    Mexican soda (e.g. Coca Cola) uses real sugar, for example.

  6. @ZUZU

    Mexican soda (e.g. Coca Cola) uses real sugar, for example.

    I have some disturbing news to report. Last week I bought a Mexican Coke from an LA taco truck. Had the key characteristics of being one–scratched up bottle, white sticker with ingredient information. It tasted a little odd and, surprise! The sticker said it contained either sugar or HFCS.

    On the bright side, it encouraged me to try Sidral Mundet, Mexican apple soda. Good stuff.

  7. @ GrimC

    Woah, hmm… sometimes NAFTA has weird effects when domestic subsidies get exported (c.f. dumping); I’d guess that’s what’s happening there. I read awhile ago about definite fruit and flower subsidies in the USA combining with specific NAFTA agreements, pricing them below Mexico’s natural comparative advantage, so that Mexico actually imports those agricultural products which naturally it would be exporting to the USA.

    If only “free trade” really meant Free Trade, in the North American Free Trade Agreement. (Although, overall, I think it still does more good than harm in curbing protectionist trade policies in all countries involved; not nearly as hegemonic as CAFTA and the Australian free trade agreement — exporting regulations such as the DMCA into countries which didn’t want it.)

  8. So, now that we will have a new president he will solve all our problems, yes??
    The problem started with the feds getting their fingers into everything where they should not have them if they would honor their oath to the constitution.
    The feds are responsible for the defense and interstate commerce – THAT’s IT!
    I know they justified interstate commerce for all their mingling in affairs that are not theirs, but if they would look what the framers intended with the interstate commerce then it would become evident to EVERYBODY, even a lawyer turned politician, that it was there to avoid taxes and tariffs between states to smooth commerce, and not to use an argument that the pencil that is produced in CA could possible be sold in Washington.
    What a breach of oath of any president to mingle with health care or schools or whatever is supposed to be the states business.

    And I am particularly disappointed with the editors of BB to publish such a rubbish.

  9. FWIW, Fanta used to have real sugar in it. At least from the places I bought my orange flavored Fanta from in Brooklyn. But as of about 1 year ago… High-Fructose Corn Syrup.

    I’m amazed at how much of that stuff is in everything. It’s like a dietary cancer.

  10. Re: HFCS. It’s not just sodas.

    You probably know this, but it’s in EVERYTHING. If you start avoiding it and reading labels, you will find it in TONS of processed/packaged foods. 99% of bread products in the supermarket contain it. Almost every boxed cookie and cracker. Condiments. I would venture to say you can find it in every (food) aisle at the supermarket.

    I had stopped buying Thomas’ English Muffins because they contained HFCS. Apparently, that company got the message, because their english muffins are made with regular old sugar now.

    On the plus side, after swearing off HFCS and hydrogenated fats, I rarely buy packaged or processed foods anymore. We’ve all lost weight and saved loads of money.

  11. How odd.

    Such a country/urban divide in the party ‘bases’ and agriculture is relegated to a handful of mentions by both candidates.

    I guess fields aren’t a ‘hot button’ issue.

  12. …Overheard at the supermarket today was this conversation between two older Black gentlement:

    “When that peckerwood Carter got into office, the price of peanuts and peanut butter went through the roof. Jelly Beans got expensive under Ronald Reagaan, while pork products did the same thing under that Clinton pervert. Now we’s got Obama in the office, it wouldn’t surprise me if the price of watermelon and fried chicken went up the same way!”

    “Jes’ goes t’show you that no matter who’s elected, someone’s gonna wind up getting screwed over. Guess I’d better be stockin’ up on grits too…”

    …No. Seriously. This happened, as God/Yahweh/Roddenberry is my witness. Fred and Grady couldn’t have done it better :-P

  13. What a breach of oath of any president to mingle with health care or schools or whatever is supposed to be the states business.

    Your Supreme Court disagrees with your interpretation of the US Constitution, Merlin.

  14. Om: Holy moly. Where do you live? Does the fact that the ones saying this were black count as a mitigating factor?

    I have to admit that I laughed. But only at the word “peckerwood”. And the fact that they noticed the price of jellybeans.

  15. Oh my god. I am just speechless. That Michael Pollan would write such an article and that Obama would not only read it, but absorb it and incorporate it into his policy decisions.

    It’s sad, but I still haven’t fully internalized having a President who can read and take input.

  16. I predict an injera trend sweeping the nation. Probably a big Paul Simon album, too. Bob Marley played at Robert Mugabe’s inauguration, who will we remember for Obama?

  17. “Om: Holy moly. Where do you live? Does the fact that the ones saying this were black count as a mitigating factor?”

    …Central Texas, in a neighborhood that’s about 50% black these days, most of them in the above-40 age bracket. These two guys were easily in their late 50’s, if the extreme levels of grey hair – ‘fro’s – is any real indication. The conversation didn’t appear to shock anyone, but it did have the rather young hispanic checker trying her damndest to keep from breaking out in hysterics.

    Of course, had I been thinking at the time, I could have asked them if they thought I should invest in the futures market for hammerhocks and black eyed rice…:-) :-) :-)

  18. “Bob Marley played at Robert Mugabe’s inauguration, who will we remember for Obama?”

    Let’s hope Obama doesn’t go down Mugabe’s road.

  19. As someone whose family’s only a generation off the farm, I hesitate to cut all subsidies.
    Yes, we need to ensure fair trade, and I don’t like the current system. But how do we even out the system and reward environmentally safe farming while still making farming lucrative enough to make sure that our farming families don’t give up and sell out to developers rather than try to compete against foreign products with dubious safety in terms of “night soil” usage (human excrement- a very dangerous practice when not done right) or pesticide use even more poorly policed than our own current pathetic FDA system?
    I’m really asking. Anyone got some recommended reading?

    As for HFCS- I am REALLY excited about a new study by Elizabeth Parks PhD out of University of Texas that actually SHOWS what holistic practitioners and other sensible observers have noted for decades- Fructose spikes insulin release, hits the system harder than any other sugar, stimulates appetite and turns to fat faster. The books “The Sugar Fix” and Good Calories, Bad Calories” both cover this well. I am delighted with that SOMEONE finally side-stepped the pernicious blocks put up by the Agribusiness lobby and finally gave us hard proof to use as ammo to get the damned corn syrup out of our kids diets.
    Like I tell my clients and coworkers, having so much MSG (which we feed to rats in obesity studies to MAKE THEM fat) and corn syrup in the food chain and then wondering why we have an obesity epidemic is like spiking the municipal water supply with gin and wondering why we have so many new cases of alcoholism.

  20. I’m just relieved that the United States now have a president who can read and comprehend NYT articles. Massive improvement over the last one.

  21. I am surprised yet very glad to hear that Obama’s going to take food/farm policy seriously. For the past 70ish years, agricultural practices have been spiraling way out of control and diverging farther and farther away from any sort of sustainable or healthy framework.

    It started with petroleum-based fertilizers (and to a smaller extent pesticides). Gas was cheap and plentiful, so farmers started to produce more and more food until the price of corn literally reached zero (This is why we have subsidies). But anyways, with this cheap food we began producing a lot of resource-intensive meat. We got into a very comfortable lull with our food and didn’t realize that, considering growing and distribution costs, it takes 10 calories of fossil fuels to produce a calorie of food (and even more so for meat specifically).

    So, America is very much addicted to oil. And if we don’t radically change how our agricultural system works, it will be absolutely crippled by the peaking of oil supplies in the near future.

    The answer is not organic farming, as cheap-to-produce food has already created a population explosion which cannot be fed enough with the larger amounts of land needed for inefficient organic practices (especially because we eat so much more meat now) [Although I did read something promising about using the stumps left over by foresters as a source of compost for farms]. What we need to do is to relook at the land we use and see how much more valuable it would be for farming/gardening. A shift towards eating locally would make the community demand that its food be produced sustainably (and very deliciously) and would protect smaller farmers from the pressures of big business.

    Now, about corn ethanol:
    Yes, we all know that as it now stands, corn ethanol is nothing more than a big wank job for agricorps. But in my bio class, my prof explained how corn ethanol is fermented versus how cellulose-based ethanol would work. They already have the exact enzymes necessary for the job, but can’t scale the process yet to an industrial level. It would be very difficult for me to believe that such a short leap in technology would be impossible to make.

  22. Government should encourage more plant-based diets. I’m not saying this just because of the animal cruelty aspect, but because it is a far more efficient use of land and produces much more food than animal-based food farming.

  23. @#26 DSAC86

    I’m not a vegetarian or a vegan, but I do definitely support a largely-vegetable diet – and almost entirely from the land-use perspective.

    But for the moment, there is still a place for some animal protein in food production. There are places where the ground is too marginal to produce human-edible food crops without heavy use of oil-based fertilizers and chemical supplements. You can, however, produce various kinds of grazing or browsing animal on the same land by growing “weeds” that the animal can eat and we can’t, or for some domestic fowl, attracting insects that the birds then eat, or a combination of both techniques!

    This doesn’t work with the large scale production techniques used in the meat industry right now – but it does work with a small population of free-range sheep or goats or chickens or WHATEVER.

    There’s also a niche for animals that eat food “scraps” that we won’t eat in the western world – both pigs and chickens have a long history of being used to recycle these unfashionable odds and ends into more palatable food (meat OR eggs).

    Again, it works better with smaller scale operations – and these kinds of technique are more efficient with smaller animals instead of big cattle (I’ve heard some arguments for “dwarf” cattle breeds but I don’t know how plausible they are).

    I’m wondering how long it will be before we return to Depression-era city gardening. I think it’ll be longer before we see chicken coops in the cities – current anxiety over bird flu will probably be a big barrier.

  24. @#26 DSAC86

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. I could rant on about ‘waste heat and trophic levels’, but here is not the time and place. Lets just say that the worlds food supply would be much more plentiful and sustainable, if as a society, we focused much less on animal based protein.

  25. Has anyone else seen the pro-HFCS industry-funded advertisements that have cropped up on the viddy-box over the past several weeks?

    One of the ads depicts two American Mothers having a conversation, like so:

    Gosh Sally, I didn’t know that pitcher of fruit style beverage which is obviously intended for consumption by Our Children wasn’t made with sugar! Don’t you know about HFCS?

    “You mean that it’s made from corn, and is fine in moderate amounts?”

    “Wow, Sally! I feel better already! Is that a fresh gallon jug of HFCS over there? Corn syrup shooters, everyone!”

    Propaganda, straight up. Which tells me that someone, somewhere, is feeling anti-HFCS pressure, which is a fine thing, as far as I’m concerned.

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