Why Did the Obamas Fail to Take On Corporate Agriculture?
By MICHAEL POLLAN
Oct 5 2016
Eight years ago this month, I published in these pages an open letter to the next president titled, “Farmer in Chief.” “It may surprise you to learn,” it began, “that among the issues that will occupy much of your time in the coming years is one you barely mentioned during the campaign: food.” Several of the big topics that Barack Obama and John McCain were campaigning on — including health care costs, climate change, energy independence and security threats at home and abroad — could not be successfully addressed without also addressing a broken food system.
A food system organized around subsidized monocultures of corn and soy, I explained, guzzled tremendous amounts of fossil fuel (for everything from the chemical fertilizer and pesticide those fields depended on to the fuel needed to ship food around the world) and in the process emitted tremendous amounts of greenhouse gas — as much as a third of all emissions, by some estimates. At the same time, the types of food that can be made from all that subsidized corn and soy — feedlot meat and processed foods of all kinds — bear a large measure of responsibility for the steep rise in health care costs: A substantial portion of what we spend on health care in this country goes to treat chronic diseases linked to diet. Furthermore, the scale and centralization of a food system in which one factory washes 25 million servings of salad or grinds 20 million hamburger patties each week is uniquely vulnerable to food-safety threats, whether from negligence or terrorists. I went on to outline a handful of proposals aimed at reforming the food system so that it might contribute to the health of the public and the environment rather than undermine it.
A few days after the letter was published, Obama the candidate gave an interview to Joe Klein for Time magazine in which he concisely summarized my 8,000-word article:
“I was just reading an article in The New York Times by Michael Pollan about food and the fact that our entire agricultural system is built on cheap oil. As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the meantime, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our health care costs because they’re contributing to Type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity.”
Was it possible that the food movement — the loose-knit coalition of environmental, public-health, animal-welfare and social-justice advocates seeking reform of the food system — might soon have a friend in the White House?
This, after all, was not the only sign that Barack Obama recognized the need to reform industrial agriculture and stand up to Big Food. In his long-shot quest to win the Iowa caucuses, he courted the state’s small farmers, many of whom feel victimized by the oligopolies that dictate the prices and terms by which they’re forced to sell their crops and livestock. He also courted rural Iowans whose communities are increasingly befouled by the hog and chicken CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) replacing the state’s family farms. Though CAFOs pollute the air and water like factories, they are regulated like farms, which is to say very lightly, when at all. Obama promised to change all that, vowing on the campaign trail to bring CAFOs under the authority of the federal Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and Superfund program “just as any other polluter.” He also promised to give communities “meaningful local choice about the placement, expansion and regulations of CAFOs.” To big pork and chicken producers, which had largely succeeded in gutting both local and federal authority over CAFOs, these were fighting words. And agricultural reformers cheered.