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 exposés 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 policy.
On August 1, at a forum in St. Petersburg, Florida, Obama discussed (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.