How Food is Linked to National Politics
Unfortunately, climate change, a scientific fact, has become a matter of politics. And though it continues to be overlooked (as was made obvious during the recent 2020 primary debates), agriculture is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, livestock alone accounts for an estimated 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, making the production of industrially produced meat a significant contributor to climate change. Conventional agriculture is also largely responsible for the degradation of our soils, as it depletes soil of nutrients while releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Furthermore, the food system is riddled with unsustainable waste streams. The food animal industry accounts for a third of municipal and industrial excrement, which often goes untreated and emits an excess of dangerous gases. A baffling 40 percent of food is wasted and sent to landfills (adding yet more methane to the environment), or is left in the fields.
Having opted out of the Paris Climate Agreement, buried USDA research indicating the impending perils of climate change, and worked to displace the leading food policy researchers, the current administration has consistently demonstrated that they have no intention of acknowledging, let alone addressing climate change. This has put environmental protection high on the list of priorities for food activists.
The Healthcare Debate
Diet-related diseases are among the leading contributors to death in the United States. Examples of nutrition and public health policies at both the local and national levels include calorie labeling, soda taxes and the development of the government-directed Dietary Guidelines, all of which have the potential to positively impact the nation’s health. Which brings us to Washington’s favorite hot button topic: healthcare. The debate stage is full of folks talking about the critical need for universal access to healthcare, and for good reason. Low-income communities are the most at-risk population for diet-related diseases. Preventive solutions – such as nutrition and public health policies that incentivize healthy eating — would cause decreases in the long-term costs of healthcare to our system.
The issues around the people who grow and process our food lie at the intersection of labor and immigration in several ways. The majority of America’s farmworkers are recent immigrants who lack many legal protections. Agriculture workers are often exposed to unsafe working conditions, with exposure to pesticides, and injuries from farm machinery, in meat processing facilities and from factory equipment. Next, food and farmworkers are often paid less than a living wage, with farmworkers often experiencing exemptions from federal minimum wage and overtime guarantees. They are also at the forefront of the growing Fight for $15 movement which seeks to increase the minimum wage across the country and fight against labor exploitation. Lastly, undocumented and guest workers are particularly vulnerable to corporate retaliation when they push for fair wages, safer working conditions, and protection from sexual assault or bodily harm. Given the current administration’s immigration policies, farmers — who exist on very thin margins as is — are already losing a significant portion of their labor force, potentially raising the cost of food.
Natural disasters can be devastating to the food system, at every level of the supply chain. This has recently been seen in the Midwest where record floods have decimated existing crops and livestock herds, and made it impossible for farmers to plant for upcoming seasons. During these climate-related disasters, distributors struggle to get food to and from affected areas because of damaged infrastructure. Residents of areas affected by natural disasters are often left without access to food for days on end, making assistance programs crucial. Low-income residents are disproportionately affected by natural disasters. They have less access to evacuation plans, financial security and health insurance, and also have the most trouble getting access to food when supply chains are in jeopardy. The Trump administration resisted sending aid to Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria in 2017, leaving a half-million people affected.
Trade and Rural America
Agricultural products make up a $140 billion chunk of US exports, so trade is an integral part of food policy. Our food trade policies have a major impact on our economy and, as a result, on what farmers are incentivized to grow and produce. These policies can even go as far as to dictate whether or not farms can stay in business.
President Trump’s trade wars with China, Mexico and the EU have put American farmers in a perilous position, losing essential markets for crops they already planted. Soy farmers, for instance, rely on our trade relationship with China, which purchases soy for animal feed. But China, retaliating against Trump’s tariffs, has heavily taxed American goods while reducing tariffs for other countries, putting many soy farmers in the red. These policies have been so harmful to rural communities that the government has been forced to distribute bailout payments to cover losses.
The administration additionally has disrupted free trade by pulling out of, or renegotiating, agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). These decisions affect what American farmers decide to produce and export, as well as the price of foods that we import from those countries. (Think avocados.)
Armed with cooking, nutrition and agricultural education, today’s students could reinvigorate the health of an entire generation and reimagine tomorrow’s food system. Garden-to-table education programs have been proven to help improve kids’ eating habits and instill in young people a better understanding of their food supply. Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, the Obama administration required public schools to dramatically reduce salt and fat in school lunches while increasing grains, fruits and vegetables. Sonny Perdue, the current Secretary of Agriculture, rolled back these restrictions, despite the fact that studies have shown that for the first time in many years, child obesity rates had been dropping.
The political issues in the news today all have the potential to have a significant impact not only on the systems involved in producing and distributing our food but on people as well, including everyone from rural immigrant farmworkers to city-dwelling eaters. In this way, food and national politics are inextricably linked. Food is one of the most significant policy issues of our time and must stay at the forefront of the conversation.