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With Food-System Reform Slowed to a Crawl, Local Initiatives Come to Fore

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Missouri News, Breaking The Chains page, and our Farm Resource page.


I think we have seen the scope of the Obama administration's commitment to food-policy reform: things that don't cost real money or challenge the structure of the food industry.

I'm thinking of the USDA's Know Your Farmer initiative, which doesn't bring new money to the table, but rather packages existing outlays in a way that supports sustainable agriculture. The program is useful and commendable, but it's dwarfed in size by programs and policies that shore up Big Ag.

Then there are those behind-closed-doors negotiations between Michelle Obama and food-industry execs, which have so far resulted in private companies agreeing to contribute salad bars to public schools and last week's big Walmart announcement.

There's nothing wrong with the First Lady applying what the political theorists call "soft power" on behalf of food-system reform, but the approach is obviously quite limited. Even the most generous reading of Walmart's recent "healthy food initiative" -- which I tried to give it last week -- has to acknowledge that such informal agreements do little to challenge the food system's power structure. A handful of large companies own a huge share of the nation's food system from seed to plate, and, utilizing their lobbying power, essentially dictate that federal ag policy will be geared to the maximum production of corn and soybeans.

Changing that will require more than soft power or a new gloss on old, severely limited programs. Indeed, while Michelle Obama has been diligently chiding industry execs to do a little better, her husband has been quietly appointing industry boosters to top ag-policy posts. The zealously pro-biotech and anti-organic Roger Beachy runs the USDA's multi-billion-dollar research program. Long-time pesticide-industry lobbyist Isi Siddiqui handles global trade negotiations dealing with food and ag; presumably, he works closely with Nina Fedoroff, the State Department's chief biotech-industry champion, I mean, science adviser. And so on. Despite Michelle Obama's exertions, the levers of food policy are firmly gripped by industry-friendly hands. And let's not even discuss the incoming Congress. Sigh.


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