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6 Things I Would Ask the Presidential Candidates About Food and Farming

The 2016 presidential election is hurtling into unknown territory, as candidates blessed by party elites fight for their political lives while insurgents suck up all the oxygen. But one time-tested electoral tradition remains in place: Everyone—from the socialist Vermont Jew with the excellent Brooklyn accent to the xenophobic billionaire reality-TV star—is largely ignoring food and farm policy on the stump.

Meanwhile, slow-motion ecological crises haunt the country's main farming regions, and diet-related maladies generate massive burdens on the US healthcare system. Over the next three frantic weeks—with five debates and more than two dozen primaries—the two major-party candidates may well emerge. If I were a debate moderator or a reporter on the trail, here are some questions I would ask them:

1. Bolstered by tens of billions of dollars of crop and insurance subsidies over two decades, farms in the US Corn Belt—the former prairies occupying much of the upper Midwest—churn out the feed that drives the country's meat industry. They also produce the feedstock for ethanol, which accounts for about 10 percent of fuel we use in cars. Yet the region is losing the very resource that makes all of this bounty possible: Its precious store of topsoil is disappearing much faster than the natural replacement rate—a trend that will likely accelerate as climate change proceeds apace. And all of that runaway dirt carries agrichemicals into waterways along with it, fouling tap water in Des Moines, Columbus, Toledo, and countless other communities and feeding a monstrous dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

A growing body of research suggests that diversifying crops—growing other stuff besides just corn and soybeans, everything from wheat and oats to  vegetables—could go a long way to reversing these catastrophes.

As president, how would you push farm policy to reward soil- and water-friendly farming practices in the heartland?

2. Meanwhile, in the country's fruit and vegetable belt, a different kind of water crisis unfolds. Drought persists in California—source of 81 percent of US-grown carrots, 95 percent of broccoli, 86 percent of cauliflower, 74 percent of raspberries, 91 percent of strawberries, and nearly all almonds and pistachios, plus a fifth of US milk production. In the state's massive Central Valley, agriculture has gotten so ravenous for irrigation water that its aquifers have been declining steadily for decades. Meanwhile, the Imperial Valley in California's bone-dry southeastern corner provides about two-thirds of US winter vegetables. These crops are irrigated by water diverted from the declining Colorado River, putting the region's farms into increasing competition with the 40 million people who rely on the waterway for drinking water. For decades, federal policy has encouraged California's produce dominance by investing in irrigation infrastructure and through sweetheart water deals with well-connected Central Valley growers. Some observers—ok, me—have called for a "de-Californication" of US fruit and vegetable production in response to these crises.

How would your administration respond to California's declining water resources in context of its central position in our food system?

3. Republican candidates have focused largely on the alleged scourge of undocumented immigrants from points south, while the Democratic debate has hinged on income inequality. The two issues intersect on our plates, through the hidden labor required to feed us. According to the US Department of Agriculture, around 70 percent of workers on US crop fields come from Mexico or Central America, and more than 40 percent of them are undocumented. Median hourly wage: $9.17. In restaurants, where the median hourly wage stands at $10, tips included, around one in six workers are immigrants, nearly double the rate outside the restaurant industry. After spasms of union busting in the 1980s, the meatpacking industry, too, relies heavily on immigrants—and pays an average wage of $12.50 per hour. How would you act to improve wages and working conditions for the people who feed us?