The Obama Administration and Food, Year One

A year after America voted for the change-agent they saw in Barack
Obama, advocates hoping for deep improvements in our food system can
point to only a few successes, while other policies that could lead to
food insecurity are brewing in back rooms.

Nearly two years ago, candidate Obama said the following in a speech at the Iowa Farmer's Union:

We'll tell ConAgra that it's not the Department of
Agribusiness. It's the Department of Agriculture. We're going to put
the people's interests ahead of the special interests.

Then, less than two weeks before the election, Obama told Joe Klein at TIME:

I was just reading an article in the New York Times by
Michael Pollen [sic] about food and the fact that our entire
agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our
agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than
our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it's creating
monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now
vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge
swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the
explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type
2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are
driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs.

Sure these comments didn't go silently into the good night; Big Ag
pitched a fit. But wow! Our president once used the word monoculture in
a sentence. And he made the connection between health care and food.
And threatened to take back the USDA. I belabor this point only because
I would argue that Mr. Pollan's piece
has become required reading, even a blueprint, for the movement - and
has set the bar ever higher for what food system thinkers have come to
expect from President Obama. But whether or not these ideas are still
in the president's mind, with an economic crisis, the health care
debate and two wars to distract him, we can't be sure. At one point,
though, we know he got it.

Perhaps as a result of the public conversation about food taking
hold, Michelle Obama planted a garden on the White House lawn and used
it as a jumping off point for a conversation about food choices with
children. And because the movement showed up and made itself heard
through the Secretary of Agriculture selection process, in which Tom
Vilsack was nominated, when it came time to choose a Deputy Secretary
of Agriculture this administration listened and selected Kathleen
Merrigan, a Tufts University professor who'd previously helped develop
the organic standards. Vilsack and Merrigan have together launched Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, an initiative designed to connect consumers to producers, a "start
of a national conversation about the importance of understanding where
your food comes from and how it gets to your plate." In
addition, the Justice Department is currently reviewing the
consolidation of agribusiness for potential monopolies, which could
result in a re-structuring of control over meat, seeds, processing, and
grocery sales. This could mean the opening up of suffocated markets to
competition, and more choices for consumers and farmers.

However, with an ever-increasing amount of meat recalls and hundreds
of thousands of Americans sickened by food-borne illnesses every year,
we still don't have anyone running the USDA's Food Safety and
Inspections Service (FSIS) - the body that is responsible for the
safety of our eggs, meat and dairy products. Back in March, the
President launched the Food Safety Working Group, but the group has not had an affect on how food - and especially meat
- is processed and regulated. Meanwhile, last month President Obama
declared the swine flu a national emergency, and while bailouts
totaling $150 million
have been doled out to hog operations for their losses this year, those
operations are still not required to test their pigs for the H1N1
virus. No one seems to be willing to discuss the obvious:
that these pigs, living mostly in Confined Animal Feeding Operations
(CAFOs), are standing in their own potentially bacteria and virus-laden
shit, and are being given eight times the antibiotics of the average
human, scientifically proven to lead to resistance. This means more
virulent sicknesses could be getting passed on to farm-workers, their
families, and the public.

Some have argued
that there is an empty seat at FSIS because the Obama administration
had trouble finding a non-lobbyist for the position who simultaneously
wouldn't upset the meat lobby. Surprisingly, though, Obama recently nominated a pesticide lobbyist, Islam Siddiqui, from CropLife America (the organization that wrote a letter
chastising Michelle Obama for not using pesticides on the White House
garden) to handle our agricultural trade interests abroad. He also
nominated Roger Beachy, former director of Monsanto-funded research
facility, the Danforth Plant Science Center, to head the newly branded
research arm of the USDA, the National Institute of Food and
Agriculture (NIFA). Beachy promised to give ever more money to
public-private sector research collaborations (read:
technology-focused), despite a broken funding system
that already favors agribusiness while we actually need more research
on how the current food system affects our health and the environment.

Indeed, our Blackberry-toting president is fond of technology, and
he seems to believe that all of it is moving us in the right direction
when it comes to food. In July, President Obama secured $25 billion in agricultural aid at the G8 in Italy, and has stated his interest in a second green revolution for Africa in an interview
(the first one brought genetically modified seeds to India, and created
chemical dependence and debt in its wake). If his team, led by
Secretary of State Clinton, and including pro-biotechnology Nina
Federoff and Rajiv Shah, is any indication, instead of focusing on
localized education, markets and infrastructure in countries in need of
food security, this money could be invested in shiny new technologies
that are years from implementation, have yet to fulfill the promise of high yields,
and that are overly dependent on irrigation (water) and chemical
fertilizers (oil). He will most likely be speaking in Rome this month
at the FAO Summit on Food Security, so there is still time to retool
the focus.

Maybe candidate Obama spoke out on food issues with the greatest of
intentions, but didn't realize the scale of the task at hand. But there
are issues ripe for the taking, that Big Ag just can't credibly pitch a
fit about. Like research - Without facilitating necessary research that
looks at the results of years of chemical agriculture on the land, how
can we expect our president to see just how our current food system is
making us sick, and then acknowledge sustainable agriculture for what
it is - human-scale operations, which build soil and focus on
diversification? And school food - who could argue with increasing the
rate spent per child by $1 in the upcoming Child Nutrition Act and
building relationships between farms and schools without looking like a

And though there may be backlash, we need a strong regulator at FSIS. The Fairbank Farm recall has already killed two people, so no matter what the industry wants, we need to protect eaters first.

Despite my harsh critique of Obama's first year in food system
reform, one takeaway is that no matter the business on the President's
preverbial plate, he can be engaged about the actual food on our
collective plates. It might take a team of skilled community organizers
to keep showing him the movement. But once convinced, President Obama
and his team have proven they will act.

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