What does an Obama win mean for the U.S. food supply?

We heard plenty of talk about Wall Street and Main Street. We heard about $150,000 wardrobes, Joe the Plumber, Bill Ayers, socialism, and cynicism. But one thing we didn’t hear much about in this election season was food and farms.

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. Obama:

  • Supports subsidies as a safety net, but calls for a $250,000 payment limitation and closing of loopholes, so that the program supports family farmers, not corporate agribusiness.
  • Supports regulation of CAFOs (factory livestock operations).
  • Wants to enforce anti-trust laws that so that smaller farmers can compete against large-scale meatpackers.
  • Wants to cap the size of agricultural businesses that can receive government funds for environmental cleanup so that taxpayers don't subsidize cleanup for large, polluting corporations.
  • Supports Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for meat, a critical issue as we learn how widespread melamine contamination of animal feed is in countries like China.
  • Wants to increase support for organic agriculture and local food systems by helping farmers with organic certification/compliance costs.
  • Wants to provide incentives to encourage and support new farmers, land conservation, renewable energy on the farm, and microenterprise for farmers and other rural Americans.
  • Calls for greater food safety surveillance and communications.
  • Plans to encourage local foods in schools.
  • Supports providing farmers with incentives that will prevent agricultural runoff.

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? (Note: Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman called ethanol “a terrible mistake”, and Jeff Goodell, writing in Rolling Stone, called ethanol “dangerous, delusional bullshit.”)  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.

Given his Farm Belt connections and the importance of his win in the Iowa caucus to his legitimacy as a presidential contender, it's unlikely he could have taken any other position on ethanol. Still, we should call upon him to fulfill his election-night promise to always be honest about the challenges we face. In the coming months, let's talk, openly, about the challenges of ethanol.

It's worth reading the plan of our next president. You can find it in PDF here.

Obama’s plan calls for profound changes to our food and farm policy. These changes could lead to a healthier, safer food supply, stronger local economies, and the return to common-sense agricultural systems that are good for our children, our bodies, our planet, our national future, and our world.

Yet Obama will take the helm of an imperfect nation, one where stunningly powerful forces conspire to resist change. To transform his vision into reality — to defeat these forces — he will need our help: our voices, our commitment, our passion, and our strength. If we want better policy, we must recognize that change didn't come on November 4, that the real work lies ahead, for all of us — not only those of us who supported Obama, but also those who did not. We must get involved not merely by meeting online, but also by getting out in our own communities to reshape this country, as he said, block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

On the night of his historic victory, President-Elect Obama reminded us that the true genius of America is simply this: that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

It won’t be easy. But more important, it won’t be done without us.

10 Responsesto “What does an Obama win mean for the U.S. food supply?”

  1. LWorth says:

    Your link to the next presidents ag plan takes one to McCain/Palin site.  Unfortunately McCain didn't win.

  2. Ali says:

    That's an alternate reality.
    Fixed, and thanks for catching it!

  3. Gareth says:

    It would be nice if he would loosen up the restrictions on slaughterhouses placed by big agribusiness.  It's easy to raise a lamb, but very hard to get it slaughtered legally, because most of the small slaughterhouses were closed down because the regulations are impossible to meet on a small scale.  That makes it much harder than it should be to buy local free-range meat.

  4. bob says:

    Getting rid of the monsanto monopoly should be a page 1 priority as well.

  5. I think it's enormously encouraging that Obama read Pollan's piece and seems to grasp the significance of these vitally important issues.  I earnestly hope that Obama will deliver on his promise to be honest with the American people.  I fear that it will turn out to be yet more mealy-mouthed political happy speak.  Americans *can* rise to challenges and handle the truth, but only if we are given the truth.  As a politician, and a leader, his primary responsibility is to tell the truth and encourage us to face our challenges squarely and with determination.
    And kudos to Pollan for refusing to soundbite his excellent article!

  6. Casey says:

    Monsanto going away??? I don't think so, not under the Obama admin. Maybe if you had actually voted for change. They will keep feeding us GMO and poison if you vote for either big government candidate. If we really loved small farms we would educate our friends and ignore the federal government, meanwhile food prices might go up, its called supply and demand, it encourages people to enter the market.  

  7. Laury Epstein says:

    Any chance Pollan will be named Secy of Agriculture?

  8. David says:

    Monsanto is the main BREAST and PROSTATE CANCER PRODUCER in the world because of its evil hormone rBGH that all women and man eat and drink with the dairy of evil factory farms.
    Only stopping Monsanto BY NOT buying anything that has GMOs and pesticides (glyphosate from monsanto) we would be able to be FREE of this cancer epidemic MOnsanto is creating !

  9. David B says:

    Good question about Sec of Agriculture.  I've wondered the same thing myself for the past few weeks.  Let's keep asking it and maybe ask Pollan whether he'd be interested.

  10. Farm Aid says:

    At Farm Aid, we're hopeful and invigorated by all the conversations happening, within the Good Food Movement and across movements. Farm and food issues, energy, the environment, public health, the economy... it's all interconnected. It's going to take all of us to effect the change we want. As Ali writes, the election may be over but our work is not! That's why Willie Nelson has reached out to Obama to offer Farm Aid's help. http://www.farmaid.org/letter-to-obama. YOU can submit your ideas directly to the transition team at http://www.change.gov.