Bittman-Pollan op-ed on food policy missed a few key ingredients

David Festa

This is an adaptation of a post originally published on EDF’s Growing Returns.

The way we produce and consume food in America cannot be sustained in the face of increasing demand and climate change – and for all the other reasons a recent Washington Post op-ed forcefully laid out.

But New York Times columnist Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, a University of California journalism professor, missed an important point: We must bring a key stakeholder to the table – our farmers – before we can make progress on a national food policy.

And we must certainly do so before we ask President Obama to issue an executive order. Having the president put a stake in the ground on food policy in today’s political reality is more likely to elicit swift and strong statements in opposition.

That will slow down progress at a time when there isn’t a moment to lose.

Agriculture challenges

Production of food has some undesired environmental and health side effects, all of which can be addressed. The op-ed piece points out a number of them, including the impact such production has on water quality.

As citizens of Toledo experienced first-hand this summer, when too much fertilizer runs off fields, it can feed the growth of toxic algae that makes water unsafe to drink.

And, yes, our sugar-heavy diets have contributed to a rise in obesity.

I don’t have a detailed recipe for how to generate consensus on solutions. But I can offer two crucial ingredients.

First: Bring stakeholders to the table

For the political system to act, stakeholders – in this case farmers, ranchers and food companies – need to know they are a part of the solution and have confidence in the alternatives. Not only is this a political necessity, solutions are more likely to be robust if the people who know the most about our food system help inform policy choices.

Instead of telling them what to do, work with them to create solutions.

Food companies and farmers are already finding ways to meet growing demands for food while shrinking their impact on the environment.

Major brands such as General Mills, for example, are asking farmers in the Corn Belt and Southeast to grow the grains they use in their products more sustainably – in ways that decrease greenhouse gas emissions and reduce polluted fertilizer runoff.

Their initiatives have prompted one large agribusiness, United Suppliers, to train their retailers to help farmers meet this growing demand. What can we learn from them?

Second: Engage elected representatives

Another constructive step is to take another look at Congress.

The Washington op-ed piece; co-authored by Ricardo Salvador of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Olivier De Schutter, a professor of international human rights law at the Catholic University of Louvain; implies that the incoming Congress will be “obstructionist.” In my view, they’ll likely be activist.

Republicans will control both the House and the Senate, and I expect they will use them to express their vision of how to address issues of concern for all Americans. Why not invite them to launch a serious discussion around one (if not all) of the nine action points the writers offered up?

Better yet, invite them to use their convening powers to focus attention on a solvable problem.

My top vote goes to addressing the issue of fertilizer pollution – a problem that bedevils conventional and organic farming alike.

Fertilizers contribute to fish kills and can even make our water unsafe to drink or even bathe in. Yet, as the initiatives with General Mills and United Suppliers show, the private sector is working directly with farmers to take up the challenge.

What can Congress do to help them?

Feed the debate

Some will say that the best thing Congress can do is to shine a light on progress and stay out of the way. Others will point to specific interventions that could help scale up win-win practices.

That is exactly the kind of debate that we need.

There is a history of non-partisan debate on agricultural issues: Farm bills usually pass Congress with large majorities.

Let’s call upon that tradition to figure out how we can meet human needs for healthy food and water in ways that improve nature and the well-being of agricultural communities.