It’s easier to plant organic in the White House garden, import a beehive, and leave politics out of it. But, like it or not, we need to talk about U.S. agriculture.
By James McWilliams
Michelle Obama participates with local students in the annual fall harvest of the White House Kitchen Garden on October 6, 2015, at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Last month’s Democratic National Convention had its highlights, some of them historic, many of them inspiring. But, sadly, none of them had anything to do a topic that’s central to our nation’s security: food and agriculture. As the Democratic Party articulated an optimistic platform for the near future, while sanitizing the fear and hate spewed a week earlier from Cleveland, the state of the nation’s feedbag never made so much as a token cameo.
This oversight might seem unremarkable in our current political climate. But do recall that, eight years ago, with the election of Barack Obama, the emphasis was otherwise. Progressives were then so publicly fluent in the virtues of agro-ecology, so riled by the abusive tactics of Big Agriculture, that they channeled the zeitgeist into a zealous promotion of none other than Michael Pollan, the food writer, to be secretary of agriculture.
The notion was far-fetched, of course, and, alas, we ended up with the opposite kind of farm guy — Tom Vilsack — filling that position. But the boldly quixotic Pollan proposal nonetheless reminds us of the once pervasive interest in reforming the industrial food system from the top-down, through formal politics, and informed by the finest progressive minds. So what happened? Why did the issue of agricultural reform slide off the national stage and careen into a dark well of political obscurity?
“OK, it’s great that there’s a non-GMO symbol on there. But do you understand that that product might have been produced with pesticides, antibiotics, and with no regard for animal welfare?”
The ultimate answer to this question hinges on the misguided categories through which agricultural reformers have long used to affect change. The various dichotomies we have conventionally used to frame the general debates over food — organic/conventional, genetically modified organisms (GMO)/non-GMO, family farm/industrial farm, local/non-local, grassfed/feedlot, and so on — has had three outcomes that, in the last decade, have started to render food reform unpalatable to most political actors.
First, the prevailing categories of assessment have left consumers vaguely confused. This confusion has subjected them to considerable labeling manipulation. Consider the organic industry’s recent attack on the voluntary non-GMO label. These two fraught designations — USDA organic and non-GMO — are intended to suggest distinct agriculture benefits to progressive-minded consumers. But in the minds of most conscientious shoppers, lacking as they do the time and resources to grasp the nuances of these terms, they blend into an indistinguishable mark of virtue. This blending, while falsely reassuring, can cause progressive agendas to clash in unexpected ways.
In an excellent NPR segment aired in early August, Dan Charles showed how this happens. He presented consumers with a choice between a carton of eggs labeled “non-GMO” and another labeled “USDA organic.” Which to choose? One patron’s response was telling: “They both sound good. If it’s non-GMO, great. If it’s USDA organic, great. I don’t know!” She ultimately chose the cheaper, non-GMO, option — thus illuminating precisely why the organic advocates are increasingly made wary of the non-GMO label.
There seems every reason here to be skeptical and assume that non-GMO but conventional egg producers were deploying one label (non-GMO) to co-opt the benefits of another (USDA organic). This suspicion is what sent the organic folks into a huff. Whether this is true or not, no politician in her right mind wants to enter that scrum. Taking sides in such an internal dispute, pitting one so-called progressive reform against another, is at best a recipe for losing friends.
Secondly, the conflicts generated by these terms are exacerbated by the fact that the labels rarely conform to the associations imposed upon them. This divergence further leaves consumers in a fog of confusion and, in so doing, alienating political interest for an altogether different reason.
Again, the organic label offers a good example of this phenomenon. Consumers routinely — 95 percent of the time — say they buy organic produce because it’s pesticide free. As this list of approved and prohibited substances confirms, this belief is wrong: Organic agriculture is hardly pesticide free. The organic guys, who often must spray more than conventional famers, and sometimes spray with harsher chemicals, do nothing to counter this profitable misconception. Instead, they often perpetuate it. An organic egg producer that Charles interviewed for his NPR piece had this to say about the non-GMO label: “OK, it’s great that there’s a non-GMO symbol on there. But do you understand that that product might have been produced with pesticides, antibiotics, and with no regard for animal welfare?”
That’s a savvy comment. But it’s also very misleading. Again, few consumers have the wherewithal to know that the organic label allows pesticides; that the prohibition on antibiotics can lead to organically raised animals being denied proper medical care; and that the organic label contains no explicit animal welfare stipulations. No matter, the economic effectiveness of this strategy should be clear. It works. In so doing, it highlights, yet again, why progressive politicians have backed off the topic of political reform for agriculture: It might require confronting these myths — organic is healthy and pure and always a better option than conventional — with a level of scrutiny that could be detrimental to progressive-minded farmers who benefit from the confusion (and vote Democrat). It would, as they say, alienate the base. Easier to plant organic in the White House garden, import a beehive, and leave politics out of it.
Organic agriculture is hardly pesticide free. The organic guys, who often must spray more than conventional famers, and sometimes spray with harsher chemicals, do nothing to counter this profitable misconception.
A third politically alienating outcome of our clumsily conceptualized food categories involves agribusiness. To the extent that progressives have articulated a vision of agricultural reform, they have done so in a way that allows agribusiness giants to worship at the altar of progressive standards. They do so with remarkable results. Last week, McDonald’s agreed to serve antibiotic-free chicken. Hurrah! Right? On the surface, this might indeed appear to be a victory for food reformers. They convinced McDonald’s, that behemoth, to do the right thing on the antibiotic issue. But the matter is more complicated.
Nobody really strong-arms a company such as McDonald’s to do anything that would be in their financial disinterest to do. The powerhouses of agribusiness — McDonald’s being the kingpin — only bow to public opinion, much less the progressive agenda, when it’s advantageous for them to do so. So when it comes to apparent concessions such as buying antibiotic-free meat, or eschewing high-fructose corn syrup, or sourcing from cage-free chicken farms, the cost of these measures not only get outsourced — usually to independent contractors who, as Ted Genoways’ The Chainshows, must somehow absorb the costs of whatever procedures the company imposes on them — but the companies that do the outsourcing reap all the virtuous benefits that ensue. The upshot: the rot at the core of our modern food system — i.e., perpetuated by companies such as McDonald’s — only grows worse. And with sole losers here being those with the least power — the contractors who are set up to absorb the procedural risks of agribusiness — and the rest appearing to be good guys doing what’s right, the issue attracts little political attention from the otherwise reform-minded politicians.
If there is to be any hope of bringing agriculture back to the plate of national politics, we need to move beyond the dichotomies that frame our current debates. We need a new set of organizing principles. A starting point might be to shift our thinking away from how food is produced to something more fundamental: What is it that we’re even producing? The United States grows a handful of staple crops — mostly corn and soy — to feed a handful of animal species — mostly chickens and cows. What if we could re-claim those resources to pursue a diversity of food production — mostly plants — in a way that focused on nutritional rather than caloric density? A simple idea, but one with profound political implications, perhaps profound enough to work its way back to the political stage for the election of, gulp, 2020.