One of my T-shirts says, “Food is important.” I got it at the Lincoln Cafe in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, where they served great food.
That’s no political slogan, and it is more than a local advertising gimmick. Everyone mentions the T-shirt when I wear it because it tells a simple truth.
Food is important to everyone. Every faith transforms food into a sacrament. The barrage of food commercials on TV is relentless. As many as 50 million Americans don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
Because food is important, it is politically important. I didn’t know much about the national politics of food in America before I came to Illinois. But there are lots of struggles over food where I lived in New England, foods that people around here rarely think about, like lobster. Those dangerous but tasty creatures lie at the center of wide-ranging political discussions: how many lobster traps should one boat be able to put out? what should be done about the migration of lobsters northward because of the warming of the oceans?
The politics of food in the Midwest involves much more money and political clout. The scale of agriculture in Illinois is staggering. Hardly any place in the world is like Illinois, which ranks first in the nation in total processed food sales, in the volume of ethanol produced, and in soybean production.
For his insider’s experience and skeptical writing about how all the big food players make food into a political commodity, I thank Alan Guebert, whose syndicated column “The Farm and Food File” has appeared across the country since 1993.
Food is political because the 10 largest food companies in the United States control more than half of all food sales domestically. Food is political because the interests of industrial agriculture of the Midwest and South are not the same as the smaller, more diversified farming of the Northeast or ranching in the West. Decisions must be made about how to balance the interests of chemical farming vs. organic farming, or farming for animal feed and ethanol vs. fruits and vegetables.
Hired farm workers connect issues of immigration, poverty and food production. The 1 million hired farm workers are among the most economically disadvantaged groups in the United States. One half of hired crop farm workers are not legally authorized to work in the US. Two-thirds were born in Mexico. They’re here because agribusiness hires them. Deport them and we’ll all go hungry.
We should thank ourselves for the role that our government has played to protect our food from the poisons, pesticides, additives, insects, dirt and rot that many food businesses used to put in our food. We should thank ourselves for the democratic work behind the federal government’s role in insuring that our food is properly labeled. The 1950 Oleomargarine Act is an example of why that’s important. It required margarine makers to stop pretending they were selling butter. We should thank our system of government for limiting pesticide residues, banning dangerous dietary supplements, and stepping in often when food products make people sick. Free unregulated enterprise has often been bad for our food and our health.
But government’s heavy hand on our dinner plate is not always healthy. We all know what we should eat: fruits and vegetables should be about half of our diet. But fruit and vegetable farming receives less than 1% of the billions in agricultural subsidies that the federal government gives out. Corn and other grains get 61%.
Republican food policy in the current Congress has been mainly directed at preventing the labeling of food with GMOs, genetically modified organisms. In the House, Republicans passed a bill which would prevent states from adopting explicit labeling laws. So much for states’ rights. Democrats in the Senate blocked the bill from passing.
Food politics are world-wide and require expertise and understanding, not just deal-making. How will Brexit affect our food industry?
Lots of Donald Trump supporters live in agricultural America. But the only things Trump has said about food was when he used his political campaign to advertise foods with his name on them – Trump wine, Trump steaks (which weren’t real because they didn’t sell), Trump water. The closest Trump gets to the countryside is at one of his golf courses. People have gotten their pants dirty for Trump since he was a boy. Is this the person to lead American food policy?
The Gulf of Maine is warming up faster than any other part of the world’s oceans. Saying global warming is a hoax tells Maine lobster fishers that the government doesn’t care about them, or Maine’s economy, or those who eat lobster. Let them eat steak.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July5, 2016