A group of prominent foodie intellectuals are calling for President Obama to cement "his legacy" by implementing a national food policy. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, author and Berkeley professor Michael Pollan, New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, Union of Concerned Scientists researcher Ricardo Salvador, and Catholic University human rights professor Olivier De Schutter laid out their plan for driving American agriculture, food production, and eating habits in the right direction via increased federal micromanagement of the food economy.
The national food policy Pollan et al. dream of wouldn't simply guide federal nutrition recommendations, public health campaigns, or farm subsidies. It would include everything from environmental policy to rules on food marketing to raising fast-food workers' wages.
"When hundreds of thousands of annual deaths are preventable—as the deaths from the chronic diseases linked to the modern American way of eating surely are—preventing those needless deaths is a national priority," they write.
A national food policy would do that, by investing resources to guarantee that: All Americans have access to healthful food; Farm policies are designed to support our public health and environmental objectives; Our food supply is free of toxic bacteria, chemicals and drugs; Production and marketing of our food are done transparently; The food industry pays a fair wage to those it employs; Food marketing sets children up for healthful lives by instilling in them a habit of eating real food; Animals are treated with compassion and attention to their well-being; The food system's carbon footprint is reduced, and the amount of carbon sequestered on farmland is increased; The food system is sufficiently resilient to withstand the effects of climate change.
Only those with a vested interest in the status quo would argue against creating public policies with these goals.
That last little flourish is fun, because it positions anyone opposed to massive federal intervention in the "food system as a whole" as at worst cartoonishly evil—you're either with us or you want Americans to live on Cheetos and three-eyed fish!—and at best suspiciously interested in perpetuating the status quo. There is no rhetorical room here to care about advancing nutrition science, fixing federal farm policy, expanding access to healthy foods, promoting humane treatment of livestock, or anything related to agriculture and eating without endorsing intense government action as the best way to accomplish these goals.
The good news, they tell us, is that "solutions are within reach"—and it's here that this piece really start to get amazing. The authors acknowledge that many of the problems with America's food economy are not market failures at all but "largely a result of government policies." So the solution surely must be to get goverment meddling out of food and farm policy as much as possible, no?
"We know that the government has the power to reshape the food system because it has already done so at least once—when President Richard Nixon rejiggered farm policy to boost production of corn and soy to drive down food prices," they write. And because government can, it should, apparently. The authors are somehow able to see the corrosive effect of previous government overreach on our food system, but they feel confident that this time! they'll get it right. "As Obama begins the last two years of his administration facing an obstructionist Republican Congress, this is an area where he can act on his own—and his legacy may depend on him doing so," they suggest, urging Obama to "announce an executive order establishing a national policy for food, health and well-being."
The idea that cooking, eating, and enjoying nutritious foods is elitist is a silly and destructive one, and I've never been one to mock folks like Bittman and Pollan for their kale chips or food philosophies. But it doesn't get much more elitist than thinking the U.S. food system as a whole would be better off by circumventing not just markets but also any Congressional debate. Just relax and let the top men take care of it…