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14.3 The Politics of Food

Learning Objective

  1. Discuss how food has become politicized, and give specific examples of how food choices are related to food politics.

Some people have begun to view their choices regarding diet and nutrition in light of their political views. More and more, consumers weigh their thoughts on the environment and the world, while making decisions about what to purchase in the grocery store. For example, many people choose to eat free-range chickens due to concerns about animal welfare. Others worry about the higher cost of organically produced food or find that those products are not available in their communities. As a result, feelings about food have become a political mine field.

Food Politics

The production and sale of food is an extremely big business and touches people in all industries and walks of life. Food is not only crucial for day-to-day survival, but also strongly affects overall health and well-being, as well as the economy and culture of a region or a country. So, it is no wonder that more and more producers and consumers alike are speaking out about food to ensure that their interests are protected. Food politics can influence many stakeholders and interests, but always involve the production, regulation, inspection, distribution, and/or retail of food.

Stakeholders

Stakeholders in food politics include large and small farmers, along with large and small food companies. Other important stakeholders include restaurants and other food-service providers, food distributors, grocery stores and other retail outlets, consumers, and trade associations. Antihunger advocates, nutrition advocates, and food-industry lobbyists also have important roles to play. Nongovernmental organizations, such as the American Cancer Society and the WHO, also work to promote good health and nutrition. Each group has its own perspective and its own agenda in disputes related to food.

Disputes

Food politics can be influenced by ethical, cultural, medical, and environmental disputes over agricultural methods and regulatory policies. They are also greatly influenced by manufacturing processes, marketing practices, and the pursuit of the highest possible profit margin by food manufacturers and distributers. Common disputes and controversies include the genetic modification of plants, the potential dangers of food additives, chemical run-off from large-scale farms, and the reliance on factory-farming practices, such as the use of pesticides in crop cultivation and antibiotics in livestock feed. Additional issues and concerns include the use of sugar, salt, and other potentially unhealthy ingredients, the promotion of fast food and junk food to children, and sanitary standards related to livestock.

The Nitrate Dispute

One current dispute relates to the use of nitrates in agriculture. At the dawn of the twentieth century, German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch invented a system that synthesizes ammonia to produce nitrates on an industrial scale. The compound could then be used to make fertilizers, which along with pesticides and herbicides, made large-scale, modern agriculture possible. However, when nitrates are used in excess, they can create runoff that pollutes surface- and groundwater. For example, chemical runoff has had a profound effect on the Aral Sea and the surrounding area in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Aral Sea, which was once one of the four largest lakes in the world, was crucial to irrigation projects in the former Soviet Union. But when the lake became contaminated by farm runoff, salinity increased and the lake dramatically shrank, crippling the area’s fishing industry. Also, as the lakebed became exposed, dust storms spread contaminated soil, and thousands of people were forced out of the region.Grant, L. “Nitrates: Dangerous Necessity.” Environmentalism @ Suite 101.com. May 7, 2011. http://larry-grant.suite101.com/nitrates-dangerous-necessity-a369949. Contaminated runoff from the use of nitrates not only leads to serious consequences for the environment, but also to human health. Nitrate poisoning reduces the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood and can be fatal to infants.US Environmental Protection Agency. “Ag 101: Nitrate.” Last updated September 10, 2009. http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/ag101/impactnitrate.html. Therefore, significant efforts are being made to use nitrates and other agricultural chemicals in more environmentally friendly ways and to monitor drinking water for dangerous levels of contamination.

The Role of Government

Federal and state policy plays a major role in the politics of food production and distribution. As previously discussed, government agencies regulate the proper processing and preparation of foods, as well as overseeing shipping and storage. They pay particular attention to concerns related to public health. As a result, the enforcement of regulations has been strongly influenced by public concern over food-related events, such as outbreaks of food-bourne illnesses.

Food Production, Distribution, and Safety

Whole chickens are suspended at a meat production plant and will soon be separated into parts.

Many consumers have concerns about safety practices during the production and distribution of food. This is especially critical given recent outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. For example, during fall 2011 in the United States, there was an eruption of the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes in cantaloupe. It was one of the deadliest outbreaks in over a decade and resulted in a number of deaths and hospitalizations.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Multistate Outbreak of Listeriosis Associated with Jensen Farms Cantaloupe—United States.” August–September, 2011. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6039a5.htm?s_cid= mm6039a5_w.

In January 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act was passed to grant more authority to the FDA to improve food safety. The FDA and other agencies also address consumer-related concerns about protecting the nation’s food supply in the event of a terrorist attack.

Addressing Hunger

Government agencies also play an important role in addressing hunger via federal food-assistance programs. The agencies provide debit cards (formerly distributed in the form of food vouchers or food stamps) to consumers to help them purchase food and they also provide other forms of aid to low-income adults and families who face hunger and nutritional deficits. This topic will be discussed in greater detail later in this chapter.

The Dual Role of the USDA

The USDA has a dual role in the advancement of American agribusiness and the promotion of health and nutrition among the public. This can create conflicts of interest, and some question whether the USDA values the interests of the agriculture and food industries over consumer health.

However, there is no question that the USDA makes a great deal of effort to educate the public about diet and nutrition. Working with the US Department of Health and Human Services, the agency codeveloped the Dietary Guidelines for Americans to inform consumers about the ways their dietary habits affect their health. The USDA also implements all federal nutrition programs.

The Farm Bill

The Farm Bill (introduced in 1990) is a massive piece of legislation that determines the farm and food policy of the federal government. It addresses policy related to federal food programs and other responsibilities of the USDA. The Farm Bill also covers a wide range of agricultural programs and provisions, including farm subsidies and rural development. And, it influences international trade, commodity prices, environmental preservation, and food safety.

The massive Farm Bill is updated and renewed every five years. Over the decades, it has expanded to incorporate new issues, such as conservation and bioenergy. The Farm Bill passed in 2008, known as the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act, included new policy on horticulture and livestock provisions. The 2008 bill also differed from previous legislation in terms of the large number and scope of proposals that were raised.Johnson, R. and J. Monke, “What Is the ‘Farm Bill’?” Congressional Research Service. CRS Report for Congress, no. RS22131 (January 3, 2011). http://www.nationalaglawcenter.org/assets/crs/RS22131.pdf.

Tools for Change

Start paying attention to the news when you hear about the next upcoming Farm Bill to learn about proposals that could affect the food that arrives in your local supermarket or that is served in your favorite restaurant. To learn more about the upcoming legislation, visit http://www.usda.gov/farmbill. You may also wish to “vote with your fork” and make choices about what you eat based on practices you approve of, such as choosing a vegetarian, vegan, organic, locavore, sustainable, slow-food movement or other type of diet.

Agricultural Subsidies

The Farm Bill can directly and indirectly have wide-ranging effects. For example, the bill dictates subsidies and other forms of agricultural funding or support. Farmers rely on this kind of support to offset varying crop yields and unfavorable weather conditions. The agricultural industry also depends on the federal government to provide some form of price control to guard against flooding the market and dragging down prices. As an example, major changes in the policy of agricultural subsidies were implemented in the 1970s to increase farm incomes and produce cheaper food. As a result of these policies and subsidies, much more corn was grown, giving rise to high fructose corn syrup as a primary sweetener in a number of products today, since corn syrup is cheaper to produce. It is also sweeter than cane sugar, which encouraged its widespread use.

Historically, Congress has pursued farm support programs to ensure that the US population has continued access to abundant and affordable food. However, some leaders worry about the effectiveness of government programs as well as the cost to taxpayers and consumers. Others question if continued farm support is even needed and wonder if it remains compatible with current economic objectives, domestic policy, trade policy, and regulatory restrictions.Johnson, R. and J. Monke, “What Is the ‘Farm Bill’?” Congressional Research Service. CRS Report for Congress, no. RS22131 (January 3, 2011). http://www.nationalaglawcenter.org/assets/crs/RS22131.pdf. For example, federal dairy policies can raise the price of milk and other dairy products, which can detrimentally affect school lunch and food stamp programs. Regarding all of these issues, Congress must heed the demands of its constituents. In the end, it is inevitable that consumers’ growing interest in food issues will affect not only the choices they make in the grocery store, but also the decisions they make in the voting booth.

Key Takeaways

  • Food politics reflect changing perspectives and policies in the areas of production, distribution, marketing, regulation, and consumption.
  • Over the years, there have been a number of controversies and disputes over food, including concerns about additives and GM foods, the push for sustainable agriculture, and the need to alleviate hunger.
  • In the United States, a massive piece of legislation known as the Farm Bill determines the agricultural and food policy of the federal government.

Discussion Starter

  1. Debate a controversial issue related to food politics, such as sustainable agriculture, farm subsidies, or the Farm Bill. Identify the stakeholders involved with the issue and discuss the pros and cons of the differing sides.