A menu for American food policy

Related tags Food Food security

At the time of writing, the US is poised to go to the polls. The next two days are going to be hugely exciting. And when it’s all over, after the victor gets some well-earned rest… he’ll rub his sleepy eyes and ask: ‘What’s for breakfast?'.

Make no mistake. This is not the only question the President-Elect will be asking himself about food over the next four years.

A comprehensive policy on food has been conspicuously absent from the presidential campaigns. Yet in the past year, the question of food price has made our daily victuals more political than they have been for a generation.

But food is not a discreet political area. As Michael Pollan pointed out in an open letter ‘To the next farmer-in-chief’​, published in the New York Times​ last month, food is intrinsically linked to three areas in which both Obama and McCain have​ expressed policy intentions – energy, health care and foreign policy.

Energy food

America’s yawning thirst for fossil fuels is shameful, but it’s no secret. But after the cars, it’s the food system that guzzles the most – some 19 per cent. And the gravest estimates put the contribution of the food supply chain to overall greenhouse gas emissions at 37 per cent.

An alternative to fossil fuels is urgently needed; but that must not be at the expense of food supply.

The US is a heavy-weight pushing the boundaries on biofuels. But while it is expected that second generation biofuels will not be in direct competition with food sources like corn, they are still a good few years off.

Indeed, if the current pace of research continues, biofuels v2.0 could be reaching commercial capacity in eight years time – just about the time Wednesday’s Mr President-Elect is handing back the keys to the White House, should he be so lucky to win a second term.

Neither food nor energy can wait so long for the new technology to be commercialized. The funding needs to come now​, and the technology fast-tracked to a stage where it can be useful.

Food for health

Throughout the era of cheap food American households have been able to spend under 10 per cent of their income on food. In the last 30 years, the industry has learned to turn a glut of cheap and subsidized crops into cheap calories, in attractive food packages.

Health has been causing some serious over-spending – 16 per cent of the national budget, to be precise, compared with just 5 per cent in 1960.

Pollan doesn’t think this is a coincidence, and he may have a point; after all, four of the 10 biggest killers in the US are food and lifestyle related diseases – obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

No decent, long-term health care vision should be without an effort to stop people getting sick in the first place.

Food and foreign policy

This may be an American election, but food is no longer a topic for one country to consider in isolation. We’ve had decades of free-trade, with commodities being merrily swopped between nations.

But the instinct of some governments, under fire because of high grain prices and shortages, has been to batten down the hatches and serve their own hungry first. Criticised these actions may be by free-trade advocates, the President-Elect may well be facing a global environment where countries that grow food get first dibs.

While the right policy may be clearer to see in retrospect, it may well be worth his while lending an ear to Bill Clinton. “We blew it”,​ he candidly admitted at a World Food Day event this year, by treating food crops “like color TVs”.

So as the President-Elect washes down his morning doughnut with a sip of coffee, it should dawn on him that he will not be making decisions just about what he​ eats from now on.

He needs to be making decisions about what, how and why the whole of America eats.

Enjoy your meal, Mr President-Elect.

Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website FoodNavigator.com. Over the past decade she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States. If you would like to comment on this article, please email jess.halliday'at'decisionnews.com

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