Food on the 2020 Ballot
by Katie Johnson
This panel featured Moderator Kate Cox of The New Food Economy, Urvashi Rangan of FoodPrint, Martin Lemos of the National Young Farmers Coalition, and Jillian Semaan of Green America.
At the time of this writing, there are somewhere around 460 days until the 2020 election. With over 20 democratic candidates, and 1 republican challenger to the incumbent, there are many voices in the arena, but will the food policy issues that impact farmers and consumers be part of the national discussion?
On one hand, moderator Kate Cox kicked off the “Food on the 2020 Ballot” talk by commenting on “how interesting it is that food and agriculture is making any news at all.” In past years, agricultural concerns have failed to get much play in the national media, much less on the debate stage. However, with anti-trust and corporate consolidation being the center of many of the forerunner’s platforms, there seems to be some sliver of hope that this correlation to “big ag” can become part of a universal conversation. Agriculture certainly hasn’t remained untouched by the claws of consolidation, as can be seen from the monopolization of the big four meatpackers (Tyson, Cargill, JBS and National Beef Packing Corporation) controlling a majority of the beef slaughtered and processed in the U.S. for public consumption; not to mention general unclarity in COOL (Country of Origin Labeling) where meat can be raised, processed and finished in completely separate places, despite what the end label may indicate.
Much of this consolidation is systemic to the issues that plague our broader economy, but the severe fragmentation of the country’s regulatory system also plays a role. Regardless of who is in office next, they will need to navigate this web of organizations responsible for conducting research and creating regulatory policy. From labeling to fertilizers (which currently can include sewage sludge) and pesticides to the acceptable allowance of feces allowed in animal feed, the organizations tasked with these types of regulation, from the more commonly known USDA (Department of Agriculture), FDA (Food & Drug Administration), and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) down to DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services), FTC (Federal Trade Commission) and AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) don’t do a great job of communicating with one another. The sad truth as confirmed by panelist Jullian Semaan is that, “Federal agriculture doesn’t mean regulated for the betterment of our health.”
Even deeper than the lack of communication between operations, Jillian Seeman spoke to the “slow” processing of information she witnessed while working for the USDA’s Civil Rights Office for the duration of President Obama’s term. “We were settling cases in 2009-2010 from 1981 to 1986. So that gives folks just a sense of what is really happening probably even today.” If this was happening roughly a decade ago, what leads us to believe things are any different today? Kate expands, reminding the audience that, “changes to census methodology have meant that some farmers, black farmers in particular weren’t counted. It cost them money, it cost them loans, it cost them land.” With all this political turmoil in the food and agriculture realm, this election cycle seems primed for the pendulum to swing back into the sphere of accuracy and equity. But first and foremost that means having uninhibited access to clear, uncorrupted, and unbiased information. Urvashi Rangan confirms, “When we don’t count things, we don’t correlate things properly. That’s the secondary consequence of that. So if you don’t count black farmers, it doesn’t seem like there are any. The analysis can then be very misleading because the data that is being captured is just not accurate.”
However, amidst what may seem like a dismal forecast, there are some silver linings. First off, there is clear consumer interest. Urvashi relates that “More than 90% of people want to know where their food comes from.” When policy doesn’t support that demand, it means there is immense opportunity to make strides at more clarity in learning where our food comes from. Martin Lemos, Executive Director of the National Young Farmers Coalition said a bright spot in the most recent 2017 Agricultural Census was the notable rise in local food and organic sales. This means that consumer demand is influencing a food evolution, if you will, which hopefully will result in more incentives to produce and eat this way. Farming remains very difficult to break into with farm land being nearly impossible to purchase without exorbitant wealth along with net incomes not viable to support new, younger farmers creating a national agricultural crisis. But as long as we keep having these conversations, we can help bridge the gaps between misinformation and informed and joyful consumer action.
Lemos continues, “It’s really important that we think about food policy as broader than just what happens on farms. Thinking about healthcare, thinking about access to housing and immigration rights, these things are essential to food policy. We need to be connecting these dots.” What can Slow Food Chapters and advocates do to continue the conversation so a broader audience is connecting those dots? “Building coalitions is important. Connecting with farmers, lawmakers and other advocates. It can be really dire, but we’ve also seen that things happen when pressure with public engagement, voicing concerns, proposing new policy, bringing together large groups of people and engaging diverse coalitions. Look outside your organization and start building bridges with other like-minded groups and even groups that may not necessarily agree, but are willing to have that conversation.” Jillian leaves the audience with a call to action, reiterating that we can’t rely on the government to effect this change. As Slow Food Chapter leaders and community organizers, it’s up to us to keep moving that needle and advocating for changes large and small alike.