Why Have the Presidential Candidates Ignored America's Food Issues?

Election '16

Remember the great 2016 presidential campaign debate about food and agriculture, the backbone of human nourishment and survival? Remember when the candidates were forced to articulate their stances on soil regeneration, farm subsidy inequities, labor abuse in the food industry, and how to rein in pesticides and GMOs while expanding organic diversified farming? Remember when the media pressed candidates to explain how they would make food and farming equitable, sustainable and healthful for generations to come?

You didn’t forget—it never happened.

In an often-riveting and raucous election season that saw Bernie Sanders push inequality and climate change to the front burner of the political hot stove, related food and agriculture issues (including mass hunger, food insecurity and the food industry’s extensive role in climate change) were left neglected on the shelf.

Instead, throughout the primaries, this primary ingredient in human existence received sporadic moments of attention aimed at harvesting votes. We heard a bit about ethanol and biofuels in Iowa. In Pennsylvania, in one of the few high-profile electoral food fights, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders clashed over a Philadelphia soda tax (Clinton supported; Sanders opposed). Here and there, a sprinkling of talk about child and family nutrition, farmworkers and trade. No prominent debate about hunger, sustainable agriculture, soil and climate change, food and farmworker poverty, or GMOs.

Given food and agriculture’s electoral invisibility, one could easily think our food system is in fine shape, feeding everyone nutritiously, supporting small farmers, and combating rather than contributing to climate change. With individual and global life-and-death issues stemming from how we produce, distribute and consume food, how can this vast, multi-dimensional terrain be marginalized and ignored by candidates and the media? What does this say about electoral politics and the power and voice of food movements? 

With so much at stake, from the looming Trans Pacific Partnership expansion of corporate and agribusiness power, to the urgent climate-healing need for regenerative agriculture and soil regeneration, to the more than 17 million Americans battling hunger on a regular basis, why is food and agriculture not a central campaign issue? “Why aren’t we hearing anything about food from our candidates and why has our issue fallen completely off the radar in this election cycle?” asked Suzan Bateson, executive director of the Alameda County Community Food Bank, at a Food First forum this June.

While there has not been a prominent united effort to thrust food into the electoral forefront, a few voices have sought to elevate the crises behind human sustenance to the debate. In a June 25 article for Huffington Post, the Aspen Institute’s Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy, wrote, “astonishingly, the 2016 elections have so far ignored the one topic that is among the biggest challenges and opportunities of our time: our food...As we’ve watched the 2016 elections unfold, where are all the corresponding questions on food, nutrition, and health? On food and the environment? On the impacts on healthcare spending and the economy? On nutrition and social justice? This gap, between the size and scope of the problem and the attention it receives, is larger for food and nutrition than for any other issue.”

Why would politicians and the media ignore an issue with such far-reaching impacts? Perhaps because the agri-food sector’s panorama of harm stretches so vast and deep, from individuals’ daily lives to the guts of the U.S. political-economic power structure. From the systematic impoverishment of food and farm workers, to nutritional and food access divides, to the food industry’s entrenchment in monoculture-based, pesticide-fueled production that endangers the planet, food represents the foundation of America’s inequities and power relations.

“Politicians don’t want to open that can of worms,” says Y. Armando Nieto, executive director of the California Food & Justice Coalition. “We have a robust food movement that could and would hold politicians accountable. It would be as uncomfortable as the Bernie Sanders campaign is for the institutionalized political system. Because food in the U.S. is a weapon. And agriculture has little to do with food. It’s about maximizing yield on food-like products to feed Americans, but mostly to shove down the throats of third-world countries and domesticated animals...The system that has systematically turned food into merely a mechanism to achieve wealth is moribund.”

Despite the bipartisan disinterest, voters—who also happen to be eaters, farmers, food workers, nurses, doctors, and taxpayers—want action and leadership on issues such as nutrition, health, pesticides and GMOs. Citing polls conducted for “Plate of the Union,” an initiative to prod electoral discussion about food, Navina Khanna, director of HEAL (health, environment, agriculture, and labor) Food Alliance, says voters “are passionate about these issues and their far-reaching implications. They’re not only aware of problems with our food system, they are frustrated by it...They believe special interests and money in politics influence the system, and that our current food policy is more focused on money than on health. Voters want change that makes healthy foods more affordable.”

In April, amid Democracy Awakening’s mass protests urging deep political reform, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s Ben Lilliston drew connections between Big Money’s dominance in elections and in food and agriculture policy: “the power of corporate money in our political system is literally everywhere. In the last Farm Bill, the crop insurance industry flexed its muscles through more than $57 million in lobbying firepower to shift government payments to benefit the industry. From buying state ballot initiative wins on GMO labeling and pro-factory farm 'right-to-farm' rules, to rolling back financial reform that wreaked havoc in agriculture markets, to blocking the fight to increase the minimum and tipped-minimum wage—the fingerprints of corporate money and influence seem to be omnipresent.”

There is a disturbing dissonance between the lack of public debate on food issues and the food industry’s vigorous and well-heeled presence in politics. Since 2008 through this year’s election, agribusiness has doled out truckloads of cash—$356 million in campaign contributions, roughly two-thirds to Republicans and one-third to Democrats—to cultivate an agenda that includes expanding corporate trade deals, protecting pesticides and GMOs, maintaining crop insurance subsidies for large-scale monocrop farms, and more. On top of that, agribusiness groups spent $132.6 million lobbying federal lawmakers and officials in 2015 alone.

Perhaps the biggest ticket of all in terms of lobbying and economic stakes is the Trans Pacific Partnership, one of the few agriculture-related issues debated during the election, though never in terms of how it would affect food and farming. As the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting revealed in November 2015, U.S. agribusiness firms have led the pro-TPP charge: “In addition to Cargill and the American Farm Bureau Federation, Monsanto, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, Caterpillar, Dairy Farmers of America, the National Pork Producers Council, Louis Dreyfus Commodities, several state-level farm bureaus and a long list of other agribusiness powerhouses have all reported lobbying on the trade deal.”

Stepping up to the plate

In this election’s final chapter, how can food movements get a word in edgewise? What are the ramifications of an election, and two dominant political parties, that give food and farming short shrift—as if eating and our future were somehow tangential to human survival?

“We want the candidates to understand that our current food system is impacting families in an incredibly problematic way,” says Khanna. “We want the nominees to understand that the structure we have in place has caused a public health crisis that is perpetuated by a set of agricultural subsidies and other government policies, created and maintained by powerful lobbyists. Candidates need to commit to creating a new system that rewards farmers and farming practices that protect our environment, that provides dignity and fair wages to workers and ensures that all Americans have access to healthy food that they can afford.”

To get this message across, says Khanna, “We are taking our Plate of the Union food truck across the country talking to voters about how this is impacting their lives and bringing together those voices to call for change.” Although the initiative, led by Food Policy Action, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the HEAL Food Alliance, is more provocation than platform, the project may offer the food movement’s best chance, at the moment, to spread a basic message: “Current food policies prioritize corporate interests at the expense of our health, the environment, and working families. This has led to spikes in obesity and type-2 diabetes, costing taxpayers billions of dollars each year...Together, we’re calling on the next president to take bold action for a food system that rewards farmers and farming practices that protect our environment, that provides dignity and fair wages to workers, and ensures that all Americans have access to healthy food that they can afford.”

At Food First’s panel on food and the elections, Doria Robinson, executive director of Urban Tilth, encouraged a reframing of the discussion around food and politics: “We need to think on a whole other scale and stop flexing with this machine that’s just killing us...We get nowhere by using the existing language and the existing mechanics of the policies we are living with. We need to redefine the machine.”

Nieto urges politicians and society to “wake up and smell the coffee, and the cookies, and the other food cooking in the kitchen. And the babies crying for lack of nutritious food. And the farmers struggling not only against climate change and the elements, but against a system rigged towards corporate agriculture. And think! Look at what happens throughout history when the leaders have used food to control populations and enrich a few privileged families and entities—in our case, corporate interests. At least understand that history will record you as woefully inadequate to the great challenges of our time.”

The author would like to thank Food First interns Ayana Crawford and McKenna Jacquemet for research assistance. This article was originally published on Food First.

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