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:
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.