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 bully?

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.