Food Issues That Should've Been Front and Center in the 2020 Presidential Election
Food industry workers and wonks make their case for agricultural and food industry reforms.
Over the years I've bemoaned the fact presidential candidates rarely focus on food-policy issues. In 2012, for example, I wrote a column on issues I thought the presidential candidates should be discussing but had ignored to date. I did the same in a 2016 column. Each time, my entreaties fell on deaf ears.
For this presidential election—taking place during a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on everything from food supply chains to restaurants—I decided to ask a handful of people from different areas of the food-policy realm to answer the following question in around 100 words: What is the key food-policy issue(s) the presidential candidates should be talking about (but aren't)?
Several people, from various parts of the food-policy realm, responded. (Thanks!) Their unedited responses—save for adding a few hyperlinks where needed—are below. Keep in mind that this column presents a survey from across a wide spectrum of the food-policy world. Not all the ideas below are ones I (or Reason) endorse.
Jayson Lusk, Distinguished Professor & Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics, Purdue University: The COVID-19 related disruptions to our food supply chain revealed there were a number of barriers preventing food from freely flowing from areas of low demand (restaurants) to areas of high demand (grocery stores). In many instances, regulations were a major obstacle. For example, many eggs are delivered to restaurants in liquid form, and regulations prohibited eggs from these facilities being sold in grocery stores. The result was an unnecessarily large spike in grocery egg prices and an unnecessarily large fall in liquid egg prices. In many locales, restaurants were prohibited from selling food directly to consumers because they lacked grocery licenses.
Mike Callicrate, Rancher & Advocate: Food security is national security. We are currently dependent upon a few predatory multinational corporations for our food. They are also serial felons. For example, recently, JBS/Pilgrim's Pride agreed to pay $110 million in fines for price-fixing. The campaigns should be offering plans to rebuild our nation's food system around a more resilient and sustainable local/regional model, applying an urgent critical infrastructure approach. Initially, the new infrastructure should be paid for by the federal government, with a high priority on connecting producers as directly as possible with consumers, circumventing the current middlemen who have proven to be fragile and unreliable. There should be renewed efforts to address monopoly power and predatory practices to totally protect the new food economy.
Jeff Stier, Senior Fellow, Taxpayers Protection Alliance: Consistent with his deregulatory agenda, President Trump should have campaigned on a pledge to streamline food and agriculture regulation in a manner that would foster innovation. For instance, the turf-battle between the USDA and FDA over cell-based food (are we allowed to call it "meat"?) caused costly delays and rewarded rent-seekers rather than innovators.
Vice President Biden could channel his enthusiasm for protecting the environment into not only cell-based foods but other advanced food and agricultural technologies that would benefit the environment. Doing so through smarter regulatory policy would benefit both the environment and the American economy, as innovators could export greener food technology around the globe.
Michele Simon, founder and vice president of policy, Plant Based Foods Association: Sadly food issues rarely make it onto presidential platforms. Of course, I think we should be hearing about how shifting to a plant-based diet is a key solution to climate change. While the current focus on the pandemic and related healthcare issues are important, many of the co-morbidities we are seeing are related to poor diet, so food is connected to many issues.
Pete Kennedy, attorney, Weston A. Price Foundation: The key issue the candidates aren't addressing is the decentralization of food production and distribution. With the upheaval in the food system after the onset of the COVID-19 crisis and the decline in food imported into the US, now more than ever is the time to strengthen food security by further deregulation of food produced and consumed at the local level. This effort will improve local and regional self-sufficiency in food production, food safety, public health, the vitality of local economies, small farm prosperity, and community resiliency.
Judith McGeary, executive director, Farm & Ranch Freedom Alliance: I wish the candidates were talking about the fact that small sustainable farms provide real solutions for numerous problems, in ways that make sense to people at all points of the political spectrum. Small business economic development, food security, climate change, public health— small farms could make a huge contribution on all these issues if the government stopped buying into the "bigger is better" myth.
Liz Williams, founder & curator, National Food & Beverage Foundation: COVID-19 has driven food insecurity to the century's highest levels. The existing food insecurity of the working poor, often not based on a lack of calories, but inadequate nutrition, places its victims at higher risk for major impacts of COVID-19. And pandemic closures of gathering places and the corresponding loss of jobs creates new victims of food insecurity, who are not familiar with the meager food safety net. SNAP, food bank pickup sites, and community resources are a labyrinth to maneuver for the new victim. Without money to buy food, and without food banks or a means to get to them, food insecurity can actually mean starvation, public health risks, poor school performance (especially with schools closed), and increased COVID-19 issues. Local food banks and community groups cannot do this alone. No one seems to be talking about the hungry.
Tyler Lindholm, rancher and state representative, Wyoming: Presidential elections are consistently devoid of one topic, in particular, let alone food policy….Why shouldn't States be the master of their own markets and in return let the people be the master of their own free market? To put it into perspective, it is now easier to sell marijuana brownies in Colorado directly to a consumer than it is to sell a ribeye steak in Wyoming directly. Standing on the principle of removing barriers for States to economically develop by promoting direct-to-consumer sales is a winning issue. It's also important to note though that farmers and ranchers rarely have lobbyists to line pockets. I expect nothing.
Daren Bakst, senior research fellow in agricultural policy, Heritage Foundation: Policymakers need to remove the excessive government intervention that exists in food policy. They should be freeing up food innovation instead of hindering it, reducing farmers' dependence on government, not increasing it, and removing barriers to the sale of food, such as meat, not keeping these barriers in place. Then there's free trade. The U.S. should be fighting to remove trade barriers imposed by other countries and taking action to remove our own barriers. In general, food policy should respect consumer dietary choices and allow individuals across the food supply chain to have the freedom to meet this demand.
Tom Philpott, food & agriculture correspondent, Mother Jones: With poverty spreading and the hunger on the rise, the candidates should be talking about how they'll ramp up food aid and bolster institutions like school lunch—and how to boost wages and improve conditions for vital food-system workers. Then there's the climate emergency: fires, floods, and droughts haunt California, our main source of fresh produce; while ever-fiercer spring storms have created an unprecedented, unchecked, soil-erosion crisis in the Midwest corn belt. The candidates should be competing over who has the best plan to mitigate climate change and protect our food system from its now-inevitable ravages.
Baylen Linnekin, columnist, Reason.com, Sr. Fellow, Reason Foundation: Other than a handful of minor COVID-related deregulatory efforts (e.g., temporarily easing food labeling rules), I wish Donald Trump could point to even one meaningful food-policy accomplishment his administration had achieved during the past four years. I wish Joe Biden would call out the folly of Trump's food protectionism and make the case for freer trade and the elimination of food tariffs and farm subsidies.