Editor’s Note: This piece is one in a series of replies to Frances Moore Lappé’s essay on the food movement today.
In the forty years since the publication of Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet, a movement dedicated to the reform of the food system has taken root in America. Lappé’s groundbreaking book connected the dots between something as ordinary and all-American as a hamburger and the environmental crisis, as well as world hunger. Along with Wendell Berry and Barry Commoner, Lappé taught us how to think ecologically about the implications of our everyday food choices. You can now find that way of thinking, so radical at the time, just about everywhere—from the pages of Time magazine to the menu at any number of local restaurants.
To date, however, the food movement can claim more success in changing popular consciousness than in shifting, in any fundamental way, the political and economic forces shaping the food system or, for that matter, in changing the “standard American diet”—which has only gotten worse since the 1970s. Recently there have been some political accomplishments: food movement activists played a role in shaping the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act and the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act, both passed in the last Congress, and the last couple of farm bills have thrown some significant crumbs in the direction of sustainable agriculture and healthy food. But the food movement cannot yet point to legislative achievements on the order of the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act or the establishment of the Environmental Protection Administration. Its greatest victories have come in the media, which could scarcely be friendlier to it, and in the food marketplace, rather than in the halls of Congress, where the power of agribusiness has scarcely been disturbed.
The marked split between the movement’s gains in the soft power of cultural influence and its comparative weakness in conventional political terms is faithfully mirrored in the White House. While Michelle Obama has had notable success raising awareness of the child obesity problem and linking it to the food system (as well as in pushing the industry to change some of its most egregious practices), her husband, after raising expectations on the campaign trail, has done comparatively little to push a reform agenda. Promising anti-trust initiatives to counter food industry concentration, which puts farmers and ranchers at the mercy of a small handful of processors, appear to be languishing. Efforts to reform crop subsidies during the last farm bill debate were halfhearted and got nowhere. And a USDA plan to place new restrictions on genetically modified crops (in order to protect organic farms from contamination) was reportedly overruled by the White House.
There are two ways to interpret the very different approaches of the president and the first lady to the food issue. A cynical interpretation would be that the administration has decided to deploy the first lady to pay lip service to reform while continuing business as usual. But a more charitable interpretation would be that President Obama has determined there is not yet enough political support to take on the hard work of food system reform, and the best thing to do in the meantime is for the first lady to build a broad constituency for change by speaking out about the importance of food.
If this is the president’s reading of the situation, it may well be right. So far, at least, the food movement has only a small handful of allies in Congress: Tom Harkin, Jon Tester and Kirsten Gillibrand in the Senate; Earl Blumenauer and Jim McGovern in the House. The Congressional committees in charge of agricultural policies remain dominated by farm-state legislators openly hostile to reform, and until big-state and urban legislators decide it is worth their while to serve on those committees, little of value is likely to emerge from them. Whatever its cost to public health and the environment, cheap food has become a pillar of the modern economy that few in government dare to question. And many of the reforms we need—such as improving conditions in the meat industry and cleaning up feedlot agriculture—stand to make meat more expensive. That might be a good thing for public health, but it will never be popular.