obamaPresident Obama and Secretary of State Clinton celebrate healthcare reform. Will food reformers ever get to celebrate a wide-ranging policy victory? Photo: White HouseWhat follows is the first of a two-post series.

“This is what change looks like,” declared a triumphant President Obama after the House had narrowly passed an historic healthcare-reform bill.

What would change look like for food and ag policy? Over the remainder of Obama’s term loom two major legislative fights that pertain to food. The first one is school-lunch reauthorization, which is now being considered in the Senate ag committee (which I discussed recently here.) The other is the farm bill, due to expire and be reauthorized in 2012.

Ahead of those fights, what lessons can the sustainable food movement learn from healthcare reform?

Never pretty: a bill becomes a law
For lessons on food policy, let’s take a brief look at what happened with healthcare.

On its winding path to law, healthcare reform nearly plunged into the abyss several times. In addition to right-wing ideology that equates publicly funded healthcare with jackboot Stalinism, the reform effort faced massive lobbying from the health industry. In 2009 alone, the industry spent a jaw-dropping $540 million on lobbying, OpenSecrets.org reports. That’s more than any other sector tracked by OpenSecrets, except a catch-all one called “miscellaneous business.”

As for campaign contributions, the health industry gave candidates a healthy $167 million in the 2008 election cycle–more than any other business interest group besides all-mighty finance.

Such outlays evidently buy considerable influence in our nation’s capital. It’s little wonder that the final legislation preserved the power of the insurance industry in our healthcare system. Indeed, in some ways, the reform package expanded that power–uninsured people will be compelled to buy insurance from a private company, with no “public option” available. And the industry will take in public subsidies to help buy care for low-income people. In other ways, of course, the industry saw its power weaken–no longer can insurers drop policyholders when they get sick, or deny new customers for pre-existing conditions.

On balance, the industry decided it could maintain its monumental profitability under the proposed regime: in its reckoning, the mandate, combined with subsidies and the death of the public option, outweighed the new restrictions on denying care. The political blogger Matt Yglesias reckons that industry groups got “85 percent of what they wanted” in the final bill.

And yet, despite that display of might, as a result of the legislation, 32 million uninsured Americans will eventually have access to affordable healthcare, if things work out as intended.

So healthcare reformers had a goal: affordable healthcare for all. And an obstacle: a large, politically connected industry that had minted money for years for gouging consumers on coverage and denying care to sick people. Somehow, the reform movement managed to largely achieve its goal (or so I am assured by observers who followed the story closely), without directly contradicting the interests of the industry it was pitted against.

For me, two questions emerge. First, is that what change looks like from here on out? In other words, do people who want fundamental policy reform have to figure out strategies that leave incumbent industries–even unsavory ones–in place? And if so, what would such a reform look like in the case of, say, the next farm bill?

Another powerful, well-connected industry
Like health insurers, the $1 trillion U.S. food industry is highly consolidated: a relatively small number of massive players dominate. A single agrichemical firm, Monsanto, essentially owns the market for genetically modified corn, soy, and cotton seeds–and is a major player in herbicides. A handful of transnationals–namely, Tyson, JBS, Smithfield, and Cargill–produce the great bulk of our meat. Two globe-spanning companies–Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland–trade most of the corn and soy grown by U.S. farmers. Four companies control nearly half of the U.S. grocery market–and the biggest of them is Wal-Mart, with its 20 percent market share. And so on.

Like the health industry, the food industry isn’t above investing some coin in Washington influence. Agribusiness spent a cool $132 million on lobbying in 2009, OpenSecrets reports–modest by health-industry standards, but not chump change, either. Agribusiness interests donated $65 million to candidates in the 2008 cycle–again, much less health, but not trivial either.

All of which is to say: a hugely powerful installed base of companies likes the food system just the way it is, and will fight in Congress to preserve its prerogatives. So my question is, what kind of real reform agenda could be pushed that would bypass the opposition of this group?

While I ponder that question for the second post on this topic, please add your comments below.