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How Should We Go About Fixing Our Food System From The Ground Up?

November 9, 2015
"I have a theory. It’s a theory about why we’re having such a misguided, unconstructive discussion about several hot-button food-related issues, GMOs first among them," states Tamar Haspel in her recent Washington Post piece If GMOs aren’t the problem with our food system, then what is?.

In her article, Haspel aims to answer the questions: leaving aside GMOs for the moment, what’s the problem with our food? How, in other words, should we go about fixing our food system, from the ground up? 

To find answers Tamar Haspel reached out to a "whole host of smart" people who "hold varying positions on GMOs." This is what they had to say:

Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture

Fittingly, he begins by pointing to two programs the Department of Agriculture has already implemented. One gives farmers — particularly small and medium-size operations — options other than large-farm style commodity crops. Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food helps them enter markets — local, regional, organic — where more of the food dollar goes to the farmer.

The second, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, encourages multiple conservation practices on farmland, to mitigate problems with soil condition and water quality.

...More-healthful school meals are a priority, as is helping families who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program assistance (SNAP, or food stamps) so they can “incorporate healthier choices in tight family budgets with more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and multiple protein sources.”

There are some uniting issues, he notes. Conservation is a goal for everyone involved in agriculture, as is adaptation to climate change. We all want to reduce food waste. And no one wants children to go to bed hungry.

Vilsack wants to find more common ground: “Food should be uniting.”

Dan Glickman, senior fellow, Bipartisan Policy Center

...He lists a few that could help change consumer habits: “Maintain improvement in school meals. Make sure the Dietary Guidelines are scientifically based and have a health focus. Educate doctors and health-care professionals about prevention techniques, including nutrition.” He also suggests that the insurance industry write policies with incentives for people to take better care of themselves. 

On the production side, he wants to encourage crop diversity. “It’s a Field of Dreams,” he says. “If we grow it, they will buy it.”

Like Vilsack, Glickman would like to see more unity. “We have to bring different people from different worlds together,” he says. “Producers, processors, retailers, consumers: That dialogue has not occurred very much. People have to be talking to each other.”

Bob Stallman, president, American Farm Bureau Federation

“The complexity of society’s relationship with food is at the core of the problem,” says Stallman. “And there’s a tendency by society to blame. Some look at the food system.” To change consumer behavior, he says, start with education. “It’s a shame kids in schools aren’t taught basic nutrition.”

Stallman says the food system bears some responsibility. “From an industry standpoint, we should do what we can to not disincentivize the production of healthier crops.” When I ask whether that means he’d support a crop-neutral system, in which insurance premiums are subsidized to the same extent, no matter the crop, and commodity programs are eliminated, he says that “in theory, I think a crop-neutral risk management support system would be desirable.”

Ricardo Salvador, director, Food & Environment Program, Union of Concerned Scientists

Salvador begins by talking about the sequence of people — seed developer, farmer, aggregator, manufacturer — who together produce food. “Everyone in the sequence is doing the best that they can within their niche. The aggregate outcome is that we’re exploiting people and nature, and producing the wrong things.”

To fix it, “you don’t modify a system by tweaking a leverage point. You have to change its purpose.” And its purpose, according to Salvador, should be “public well-being,” which encompasses both human and environmental health. From there, we have to align incentives with that objective. “Right now, incentives are all about productivity, because at one time that was the limiting factor.”

To change that, Salvador focuses on the political process, beginning with “a concerted campaign for the next president to see that food should be a high national priority. Every issue that candidates believe they have to address — climate, drought, immigration — is related to food.”...

Tom Colicchio, chef/owner, Crafted Hospitality; co-founder, Food Policy Action

Colicchio starts with crop subsidies. “If you want to change behavior, there have to be incentives,” he says. “We are tying subsidies and crop insurance to conservation, but some of the standards need to be stronger.” He suggests, as an example, tying them to the amount of carbon sequestered in soil.

He’s also focused on helping farmers convert acreage to organic crops. “There are farmers who want to do it, but the three-year period [required for the transition] may not be a good business decision.” He floats the possibility of an affordable loan program, or “a futures market for organic,” to help with that.

...“I think people want to eat healthier food, but they can’t afford it.” To make fruits and vegetables more affordable, Colicchio circles back to crop subsidies, which he’d like to see reflect MyPlate, the USDA nutrition guide that divides the plate into approximately four equal parts: fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins. He also wants to see programs like SNAP and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) keep their funding.

In schools, Colicchio would like to see a continued focus on more-healthful school lunches and more nutrition education. “Start at pre-K,” he says, “so kids know what healthy eating is.”

Michael Jacobson, executive director, Center for Science in the Public Interest 

Jacobson pinpoints three improvements we should make: Drink fewer sugary drinks, eat less meat, and eat more fruits and vegetables. On the sugar front, he suggests soda taxes and FDA limits on the calorie content of drinks (and a warning notice on drinks that exceed the limits). On produce, he says “government and industry need to mount major, ongoing dietary-change campaigns promoting fruits, veggies — including beans — and whole grains.” He also favors giving SNAP recipients discounts on fruits and vegetables, but acknowledges that it’s “unrealistic” politically...

Laura Batcha, chief executive and executive director, Organic Trade Association

Batcha points to two issues: diversity and choice.

“Diversity is the obvious one,” she says. “Crop diversity, habitat diversity, diversity in seed. Most everyone can agree that diverse systems are more resilient.”

Our food landscape is driven by both markets and public policy, she notes. “We have to make sure that the government doesn’t have its hands on the scale toward one production system. It has to drive agriculture toward, not away from, diversity.”...

Although Batcha represents the organic industry, she’s quick to say that organic is “not the only thing,” but should be one choice among many. 

Hugh Grant, chief executive, Monsanto

One of Grant’s priorities is feeding a growing global population. What are the next 2 billion humans going to eat? “The U.S. is going to have a big part of feeding them,” he says, and notes the productivity of soybeans, “the cheapest, purest source of high-volume plant protein.” He acknowledges, though, that Americans don’t consume soy that way. (We feed it to animals and use the oil in food processing.)

Dialogue also has to include people who aren’t in that chain. “There’s more interest in agriculture than there’s ever been,” Grant says. “When you think of the tiny fraction of those involved in growing food, and then the number involved in the debate about food, it’s an order of magnitude bigger.” But there’s a lot of “needless friction” in that debate. “It’s conventional versus organic, small versus large, slow versus local. It’s either/or, and the public spectacle of locking horns.” To improve our food supply, “we’re going to need every element of this.”...