Although Slow Food Nation, with its red-carpet promenade of food-system luminaries, has not yet faded from memory, I’m apparently a bit of a masochist when it comes to listening to people wax visionary about the future of the food system. Instead of staying in and canning the latest massive harvest of tomatoes, I zipped up my vest and headed over to UC Berkeley for a panel organized by the school of journalism entitled “A Food Agenda for the Next Administration.” Yes, we’re definitely in California.
The panel took place at Wheeler Hall, a space more familiar to sleep-deprived poli-sci students than ag policymakers. The audience was heavy with undergrads, a welcome change from the older audience I’ve come to expect at these events. A few brought sleeping bags. Perhaps they were hoping Michael Pollan would send them off on their very own boar-hunting expedition afterwards?
The panel was moderated by Cynthia Gorney, a reporter-turned-prof at the journalism school, and featured Pollan himself, Michael Dimock of Roots of Change, Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm and the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, and Mark Ritchie, Minnesota’s heartthrob Secretary of State. I should mention at this juncture that I have a longstanding (but completely professional) crush on Secretary Ritchie, who used to head the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and sports a wholesome Midwestern accent and Leave it to Beaver haircut. In addition, he is brilliant. But I digress.
The question posed to the panelists: Imagine that you have been summoned to the new president’s side as he decides what to do about the food system. What are the most important issues on the agenda, and how did the work you’ve been doing on food policy lead you to believe this?
Definitely doable in two hours.
Ritchie led things off by noting that a huge limitation to making sweeping change under any one president is, of course, that politicians’ time horizons only extend for a few years. But if there will ever be a moment to make sweeping change — real, long-term, visionary change — it’s now. Just as the financial crisis has helped us realize that the free market doesn’t always make the right choices, said Ritchie, we’re coming to realize that an under-regulated food system is not a pretty sight. In other words — let’s say it together, now — policy matters.
This was Ritchie’s most consistent and compelling point throughout the event. At the end of the day, he said, the silver lining on the Wall Street crisis is that the ideology of nonintervention — the idea that governments should be completely hands-off and let the market work its magic — has gone to the birds. “There will be no noninterventionists left after a 900-point slide,” he joked darkly. Perhaps the financial crisis will help us understand that government intervention can be used for good. Indeed, it’s how modern societies work. We have organized bodies and a political process.
His example of the dangers of under-regulation, which others brought up as well, was the Chinese milk contamination disaster. In today’s globalized food system, said Ritchie, when a corrupt or greedy businessperson anywhere on the planet decides to put poison in a food product, it will become a global problem very quickly. Melamine contamination in Chinese milk products is ignored at the local level in China because of a bribe, and ignored at the national level because of the Olympics. It’s ignored at the port in Oakland because we’ve dismantled our import inspection system; in the U.S., a mere 1% of imported foods are tested. The problem is only discovered when we reach a dying baby in an ER in St. Louis. “When a dying baby is regulation,” he said, “we’ve lost our way as a society.”
Putting the pieces in place
So what is needed? No shortage of ideas from this bunch. Ritchie emphasized the importance of global agreements on food security that could help address the related problems of climate change, environmental degradation, and hunger. Michael Dimock urged the president to reframe the goal of the food system: Instead of being built around the goal of cheap calories, our food system should be built around the goal of personal, environmental, and community health. That means creating policy incentives to feed people properly and programs to teach kids how to grow food, cook it, and eat it. (I imagined a certain Berkeley matriarch smiling at that one.)
Judith Redmond brought it to the local level: We need sane, scale-appropriate regulations that reward farmers who grow diverse crops and care for the environment. “I grow grass buffers along the waterways on my farm to keep down runoff,” she said, “and while the water quality people like it, the food safety people want me to get rid of it because they say it might harbor contaminants…. Small farmers feel hemmed in by contradictory regulations, rules they can’t possibly follow,” rules that were written for giant monocropped operations. She urged the new administration to take farm research and extension back from corporations like Monsanto. And she urged the sustainable food movement to reach out to mainstream, conventional farmers to engage them in finding solutions. She also urged us to take our work to the next level. “The metric of local is a good base,” she said, “but we can’t stop there. We need a blueprint that looks all the way up the supply chain, to wholesale distributors, exporters.”
As he often does, Pollan provided synthesis. “We know,” he offered journalistically, “that the marketing of political ideas is often as important as the ideas themselves.” The great challenge will be to get the president’s attention on food issues. To the president-elect, Pollan would say the following: “Even though you didn’t talk about food [in the elections], you talked about energy independence, climate change, and the health care crisis. You will find that food is the shadow issue behind all three of those things.” Food consumes some 19% of our fossil fuels; produces 20-35% of our greenhouse gas emissions; and has contributed to driving up health care costs from 5% of national income in 1960 to 17% today. “In the medium and long term, unless you deal with food, will have trouble dealing with the rest of your agenda.”
A brief rant
The evening took a short downturn when the moderator asked three questions in a row about the now well-publicized proposal to build a victory garden on the White House lawn. If I had one beef with this generally outstanding panel, it was that too often, the proposals being put forward by the panelists as policy were… well, not policy. Victory gardens are great. I love victory gardens. But victory gardens — on the White House lawn or otherwise — should not be the subject of three questions put to a panel charged with outlining a food policy agenda for the new administration in two hours. Nor am I inclined to agree with a certain Berkeley matriarch who insisted at a Slow Food Nation panel that when the new president sees said garden, he will understand what needs to happen to fix the food system. Call me cynical, but I think we need to get a little more specific.
The panelists did have a number concrete policy suggestions, which were great. But at times, their proposals were more about the vision than about the nuts and bolts. I’d love to see another panel of this ilk that also included folks from around the country who have been actively proposing policies, lobbying legislators, and getting their hands dirty in DC. Mark Ritchie was a breath of fresh air in this respect — and I’m not just saying that because of the crush thing.
We now return to our regularly-scheduled program
The conversation shifted to the candidates’ platforms — OK, Obama’s platform — which hints at some good possibilities on the horizon. Dimock applauded Obama’s consensus-building approach to problem-solving and Pollan concurred: Food is a touchy issue, and we need to figure out how to talk about it as a country. (At the moment, he said, we’ve gotten as far as “Moose is good, arugula is bad.”) Obama’s platform also prioritizes diet and nutrition in the context of health care, which is encouraging, and talks about supporting a new generation of farmers. In contrast, McCain seems to hate farm policy like it’s his job.
There were several questions about how the next president could reconcile the importance of giving farmers a fair price for their products with the need to give the poor access to healthy, local food. There was the usual discussion of reallocating subsidies to federal nutrition programs, but then Ritchie stepped in, Superman-style, and panned outward: “We want people working. We want the president to be thinking about jobs, job creation, small business creation, people working in the food industry. We want a system aimed at making sure people have family-supporting incomes through work. That starts a cycle of saying that we want people to have the money to have the choice about what they eat.” In other words, creating a good food policy means thinking outside the box. Pollan added to the outside-the-boxness with suggestions about allowing farmers to sell carbon credits and incorporating farming into a Green Jobs program under the next administration.
And what can the audience do to help these visions along? Vote, for one. The panelists spoke of a heartening “re-energizing of democracy” that they’re seeing this election cycle. “We can’t go home after November fourth,” said Ritchie. In fact, some of us should consider relocating to DC permanently, populating congressional offices with good, visionary staff. “Policy makes the future, but it’s only people who make policy,” he offered sagely. But whether from inside the beltway or without, said the other panelists, we need to make our voices heard. Agriculture has long been treated as an interest of concern to farmers and no one else. Now, for the first time, there is an incredible amount of political energy around food. “Politicians have overlooked this,” said Pollan, “but they won’t for long.”
I waited afterwards and shook Ritchie’s hand, thanking him and shamelessly plugging the blog. He gave me his business card. I biked home, grinning like a fool.