'Yes We Can' Create a Sane Food Policy in the US

Two extensive reports released in April
indicate that our current method of devising food policy is broken and
that the current system is doing tremendous harm in many areas,
including those that are of particular interest to President-elect
Obama: human health, the environment, and global poverty.

The first of these reports, "Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America,"
was produced by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal
Production, a major project of the Pew Foundation and the Johns Hopkins
Bloomberg School of Public Health. The Commission comprised 15 members,
including ranchers and health-focused professors (e.g., Marion Nestle)
as well as a former governor of Kansas (John Carlin), a former
secretary of agriculture (Dan Glickman), a former assistant surgeon
general/chief of staff to the surgeon general, and the president of the
Western Montana Stockgrowers Association. After more than two years of
research, which included heavy lobbying by the meat industries, the
Commission released its report explicitly comparing the state of
agriculture today to the "military industrial complex" feared by Dwight
Eisenhower. Upon investigation, the Commission found what it calls an
"agro-industrial complex--an alliance of agricultural commodity groups,
scientists at academic institutions who are paid by the industry, and
their friends on Capitol Hill."

One of the truisms of Washington
politics is that agribusiness won't allow a sane food policy in the
U.S. This sad fact is just as true of Democratic as of Republican
administrations, as detailed by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser and the Center for Public Integrity
(CPI). Both wrote their strongest exposes about the issue during the
Clinton administration. And although I'm currently discussing the
executive branch, the problem infects Congress as well-whether under
Democratic or Republican control (as documented by the Pew Commission,
Schlosser, and the CPI).

The results of the farmed-animal
industry's self-governance have been disastrous. As the Commission
explains, "Our diminishing land capacity for producing food animals,
combined with dwindling freshwater supplies, escalating energy costs,
nutrient overloading of soil, and increased antibiotic resistance,
will result in a crisis unless new laws and regulations go into effect
in a timely fashion. ... This process must begin immediately and be fully
implemented within 10 years
" [emphasis added]. In its
executive summary, the Commission writes, "Commissioners have
determined that the negative effects of the [factory animal farming]
system are too great and the scientific evidence is too strong to
ignore. Significant changes must be implemented and must start now."

A similar report ("CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations")
by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) was also released in April,
reaching similar conclusions and making similar recommendations.

In addition to the other issues, the
UCS report details the tens of billions of dollars the meat industry
receives in taxpayer subsidies every year. Remarkably, factory farms
are so economically inefficient that factory farm representatives claim
the entire meat industry would cease to exist if forced to pay even a
tiny fraction back in the form of meaningful clean-air legislation.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, not one of
either reports' recommendations was included in either the House or
Senate versions of the Farm Bill--or even meaningfully discussed.

In January--another Obama first--we will
have a president who has shown a keen interest in the problem: The
Obamas famously shop at Whole Foods and eat organic vegetables--so the
president-elect has his personal house in order. Impressively, he also
understands and cares about the broader implications of our food

On August 1, at a forum in St. Petersburg, Florida, Obama discussed (watch video)
the fact that funneling grains through animals is inefficient, which is
contributing to food shortages and even food riots in the developing
world. At home, he pointed out that agribusiness subsidies are vastly
inefficient, that they neglect the healthiest foods, and that American
health would benefit from a change in diet. He declared that we need
"to reexamine our overall food policy ...."

The issue was still on his mind when he spoke with Joe Klein from Time magazine in October, when he brought up Michael Pollan's recent New York Times Magazine
letter to the "farmer in chief." Obama discussed food policy like a
pro, arguing that the U.S. needs--but doesn't have--a comprehensive
policy approach. Obama explained that our lack of a sane and coherent
food policy poses significant environmental, health, and national
security problems.

Of course, understanding the problem and fixing it are two very different things.

First, Obama must pick a secretary of
agriculture who does not have ties to agribusiness and who has not
spent her or his career defending the status quo. Three names that are
being discussed in the media--Charlie Stenholm, Colin Peterson, and John
Salazar--would be horrible choices, as these men have supported the
status quo consistently and would be very unlikely to support even the
most modest of reforms. Even on noncontroversial animal welfare
measures, they have gone against the will of the American people to
support the worst policies imaginable--including horse slaughter and the
sport-hunting of polar bears--even when the vast majority of Congress,
including Sen. Obama, were going the other way.

Second, PETA is recommending the
creation of a National Food Policy Council (NFPC) to coordinate food
policy, which is currently far too disparate to be efficient or wise.
We have the National Economic Council, now run by Larry Summers, that
looks at interagency economic policy, with a focus on efficiency and
sound policy. And we expect that Obama will follow the advice of John
Podesta, who recommends a cabinet-level "Department of International
Development" in his superb book, The Power of Progress. Similarly, we desperately need a food-policy council, which could include Rep. Rosa DeLauro's proposal for a food-safety agency but with a broader mission.

One specific policy initiative that the
new NFPC should address is the placement of the National School Lunch
Program (NSLP) in the USDA. The current situation represents a conflict
of interest that is harming the health of our nation's young people.
Because the USDA exists to promote U.S. agriculture--not to improve
human health--the NSLP has become a dumping ground for the meat and
dairy industries at the expense of children's health.

A similar issue exists regarding
poverty alleviation. Currently, the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
program provides women with up to 28 quarts of milk or 4 pounds of
cheese per month, both of which are high in saturated fat and
cholesterol. However, the program skimps on vegetables, allowing a
monthly total of only 2 pounds of carrots (for breast-feeding women
only) and 1 pound of beans--no other whole vegetables or fruits are
allowed. The WIC program should be administered by the Department of
Health and Human Services, not the USDA, for the same reasons that
there should be a shift for the NSLP.

The president-elect has committed to
implementing sweeping changes that will improve the nation's health,
protect the global environment, and address the problems of domestic
and global poverty. He should start by appointing an independent-minded
secretary of agriculture who shares his concern for our nation's youth,
our national health, global development, the environment, and animals,
and he should create a National Food Policy Council and appoint a
food-policy "czar" to oversee and coordinate a comprehensive and
forward-thinking policy.

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