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October 24, 2008

Someone Gets It
Closing the loop on this food policy thread is none other than - as I like to say around the house - the Next President of the United States: Barack Obama!!

The inestimable Ezra Klein found a truly astonishing quote by the candidate from the recent Joe Klein (no relation but you were right to ask) interview of Obama.
I was just reading an article in the New York Times by Michael Pollen 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. That's just one sector of the economy. You think about the same thing is true on transportation. The same thing is true on how we construct our buildings. The same is true across the board.
Like, wow. But the important part is neither 1) that we will have a president have a presidential candidate who actually READS the NYT Magazine nor 2) that he's quoting Michael Pollan, but rather that Obama gets the framing of food policy.

In possibly his best post in recent memory, Ezra thinks Pollan muddies the water too much in his prescriptions for reform and that the fundamental element of any reform is addressing the subsidy issue.
The discussions of subsidies -- the key issue in food policy -- is subsumed within section one's discussion of polycultures. They exist in the piece, but not clearly, and not with sufficient force[...] We need to dismantle the subsidies before we can really talk about incentivizing different agricultural behavior.
This is inarguable. Meanwhile others are suggesting that Pollan's policy focus on reregionalization is misguided at best. But the two concepts - elimination of subsidies and the reregionalizing of food production are linked. Subsidies led to CAFOs and monoculture. Neither can survive without the subsidies. So if you eliminate subsidies what exactly are you left with? What will the food system look like? Pollan is, I think, trying to point the way. If we don't have a vision for where we're going, we'll likely never to get started.

After all, we've been down this road many times. Farm subsidy reform when attempted head on is hard, if not impossible (the reasons for which Ezra discusses at length). Bush, having raised subsidies against his will during his first term, could barely make a dent in subsidies during his second - and that was with his party in control of Congress.

Clearly mindful of past failures of reform, Pollan is putting the subsidy battle into a much larger context. In that effort I think he succeeded. You only have to read Obama's encapsulation of the issue to see how much more powerful it becomes when you don't use the S-word (by the way, having fallen in love with that formulation, i.e. a letter followed by the construction "-word", I am officially foreswearing it). And realizing that this issue could be top-of-mind for a President Obama is, for many of us, truly awesome.

With oil in free-fall and commodity prices well off their summer highs, the purely financial argument for subsidy reform may in fact weaken (though the UN promises prices won't stay low for long thanks to biofuels). The institutional impediments to reform in this country are enormous (and this applies to all areas that require attention - climate change, health care, taxes, etc.) and the road to any real reform runs through - and often ends at - the relevant Senate committee. But when you have a frame for attacking subsidies that posits it as part of a structural reform of food production and as a public health issue, it may be easier to find a path around the stacked deck of the Senate Agriculture Committee and past the 60 vote threshold. On the other hand, $4 a gallon gas doesn't hurt reform's chances either.

And it's important that we get this right. The evil-twin to the NYT's Food Issue is the Wired Magazine Future of Food Issue. In a series of striking charts and maps, Wired illustrates the food production chain to demonstrate our reliance on fuel and chemicals. It then purports to trace a science-based future for increasing yields in order to meet rising demand at a time when the hydrocarbon-based system is falling apart. But it doesn't deliver. It's just better living through different chemistry. The key to the future according to them is held in biotech and genetics. That does not strike me as good news at all. And it's why Pollan's alternative vision is so crucial. My guess is that opponents of Pollan-style reform will indeed embrace technology. GMOs will be to the food crisis what nuclear power is to the climate crisis - an easy "sacrifice-free" solution. Which is why I'm glad our next Farmer-in-Chief reads the Sunday Magazine.

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Anonymous PhillyProf said...

I'd love to hear more about Wired's "better living through different chemistry." Scary. Tell those geeks to get their hands off my food system!

Blogger Amos said...

"S-word"? You mean, "sword"?

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