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December 19, 2008

The Practical Politics of Food
Tom Philpott's not entirely unfair hit on Steven Chu got me thinking. And commenting on his post. Here's an expansion on what I said:

With all the upset stomachs in the food movement over Tom Vilsack as the new Ag Sec, one thing I haven't yet heard is an explanation of how a true reformer, one to whom the farm lobby and agribusiness is actively hostile, could get anything done at the USDA. Many bloggers, myself included, have written on the institutional difficulties, specifically in the Senate, inherent in agricultural reform. Even Pollan recognizes this and suggests House and Senate committee reform (itself a near impossibility) to deal with it.

I'm not a fan of some of Vilsack's positions (especially on ethanol and GMOs), but I'm unclear on how anyone more progressive than he could accomplish the change we want at the USDA - he/she would be blocked at every turn. Assuming that a reformer could even be confirmed, which in my view would be incredibly unlikely. The Senate, remember, allows a single member to place a secret hold on any vote - a noisy reformer with the intent of undoing subsidy regimes that have enriched agribusiness, factory farmers, lobbyists and lawyers would be a prime candidate for such a maneuver. The politics of reform are prohibitive, though Steph Larsen at the Ethicurean is right that much can be done by the second and third tier jobholders at Ag - the operational folks who can make change on a daily basis.

All that said, I do still think that Vilsack does have the potential (working with Sen. Tom Harkin - who I've seen pointed out is relatively reform-minded himself, especially with regards to conservation efforts) to start to turn this battleship. But this is a multi-year project. I think the history of health reform in this country provides a good guide (Ezra Klein would be the one to flesh out the comparison). The institutional barriers for health care reform are just as high as for the food system. It's been 15 years from the first, disastrous attempt at massive reform. Only now are we facing the possibility of success - it took that long to move the institutions in the right direction.

As for the food system, you can argue we may not have that long. In my opinion, if indeed climate science takes the lead in the Obama administration, the potential for swifter change is there. I think the debate on ethanol, for example, has really just begun in Washington, and it's going to be the scientists, not the politicians, taking the lead. And that points to a major problem for food policy reform - unlike most other "movements" in US politics, the food movement doesn't have a significant institutional presence in Congress, the place where reform is actually enacted. Ezra Klein has alluded to the lack of high-profile political "leaders" of the food movment. But there's an even greater structural deficiency. Labor, environment, reproductive rights, health reform - they all have organized groups within Congress (not to mention sizeable, well-funded lobbies) pushing the debate. The food movement is in its infancy there - and it shows.

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