We asked a number of leaders in sustainable food and agriculture to imagine they found themselves in an elevator with the president-elect — giving them one minute of his undivided attention. Here are their messages to Obama about how he should approach environment, energy, climate, and food policy. (For more perspectives, check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of our elevator-pitch series.)
“I would urge the new president to appoint a Food Policy Czar in the White House. Why? Because, as I’ve written recently (see “Farmer-in-Chief“), progress on the all-important issues of energy independence, climate change, and health care costs depends on reform of the food system–and, crucially, an ability to connect all those dots when making policy. The challenge is to align the goals of federal agricultural policy with the goals of public health, energy, and environmental policy (for the first time), and no one cabinet department has an interest in making those connections. The USDA is largely a captive of the farm lobby and can’t be counted on to protect the public health when formulating farm policy; responsibility for food safety is, absurdly and fatally, divided between different agencies (with USDA charged with protecting meat; the FDA fruits and vegetables); jurisdiction over the environmental regulation of agriculture is similarly divided among the USDA, EPA and FDA. This balkanized approach suits the food industry, naturally, but it jeopardizes food security while making real reform impossible. Only when we have in place a White House adviser with the power to coordinate policies across the various relevant agencies and Cabinet departments will the government truly begin to represent the interests of America’s eaters in its policies. The Food Policy Czar can also help out with creating (and perhaps occasionally weeding) the new Victory garden on the White House lawn.”
Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA:
“Once you plant an organic garden on your lawn, as you build your new-New Deal, help us to build a green job corps that feeds us. We need jobs, we need to do right by our environment, and we need to be fed. We need a green job corps, and it needs to be populated with the professions that truly build community — professions that nourish us. We need a green job corps, not only of green energy technicians and solar panel installers, but of gardeners, farmers, bodega owners, and lunch ladies.”
“Mr. President, I’ve got two words: big picture. Yes, you’ll need to take immediate steps to, for example, boost foreign food aid or pump up energy R&D. But don’t miss the larger story here. For decades, U.S. policy toward energy, farming, other resource-related issues has been piecemeal — we’ve understood them, and tried to manage them, as separate challenges, and certainly as separate political constituencies. But you, of course, realize these issues all relate to climate change, and that our strategies for each must be developed in a larger context of climate. Such a framework will help ensure that our resource policy is internally consistent and that our approach to, say, alternative energy doesn’t undercut our aim of cutting CO2 emissions. But a climate umbrella will also offer political cover to confront powerful interests, such as the farm lobby or the oil sector, who will be pushing hard for dubious policies. Climate, in other words, can be your excuse for doing the right thing.”
Andrew Kimbrell, attorney, author, activist, and executive director of the Center for Food Safety:
“President-elect Obama, congratulations on your victory. To paraphrase your beloved Lincoln, you helped bring out the better angels of our collective nature — and not a moment too soon, given the wreckage wrought to our nation by the Bush administration.
“Clearly your first priority has to be to stop the bleeding of our economy. As many others have suggested, we need a new New Deal to create jobs and repair our infrastructure. This time, let’s make it a ‘Green’ Deal as we address our economic woes and begin to comport or economy with the only real economy — the ecological carrying capacity of the earth. This means using sustainable materials and methods to rebuild our cities, promoting wind and solar power, building mass transit, and shifting totally away from fossil fuels in the next ten years.
“Food production can play a major role in the new Green Deal. It has been shown that organic agriculture not only reduces pollution and lessens global warming but also creates many new jobs. We need to protect the organic standards and evolve the ethic by supporting local, appropriate-scale, humane, socially just, and biodiverse food production that can revitalize local communities and protect our food security. Let’s get federal support for community-supported agriculture (CSAs) and urban and suburban agriculture that, like the Victory Gardens of WWII, can make communities food sufficient and significantly lower food prices. Let’s support farmers markets in economically disenfranchised urban areas that often have no access to supermarkets or healthy and safe food. On the governmental end, it’s time to have a federal agency completely devoted to food safety and security.
“On the personal level, remember to take care of your, and your family’s, physical and mental well-being during what will be a very tough and stressful time. Keep up the b-ball and, yes, continue seeking the advice of the ever-wise Lincoln.”
Vera Fabian of the Edible Schoolyard project in Berkeley, Calif.:
“Mr. President, as a garden teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, I see each day the power of good food to create community and inspire goodwill. In our garden and kitchen, these children learn practical life lessons in health, sustainability, and community empowerment. This solid education can no longer be the privilege of a lucky few; it must be a right for all young Americans. As our leader, invest in the generation facing the brunt of our broken food system: Make it a national priority to give our children the opportunity to grow, cook, and share good food at school.”
“In Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope, you talk about the women who nurtured, cared for, and fought for you. But around the world, U.S. food policy makes it impossible for women to feed their families. The majority of food eaten in developing countries is grown by women, yet U.S. agricultural policy abroad strengthens the hand not of the poorest food producers but the richest ones.
“Today’s U.S. agricultural policies put billions in the hands of food corporations while disenfranchising small farmers — in the U.S., black farmers have been hit particularly hard by USDA racism. The destructive U.S.-sponsored global trade and intellectual property policies that lock up knowledge about seeds and drugs should be abandoned. The insane policy of growing food not to eat but to burn, the U.S. biofuels policy for which you’ve expressed great support, needs to be reversed. And we need to move towards valuing the full environmental and social cost of food.
“To solve the injustices in agriculture requires not the right cabal of policy experts, but an ear open to what those most deeply hurt by U.S. policy are saying. Under the rubric of food sovereignty, women and men around the world have come up with effective and practical ideas about how to feed the world sustainably. Doing that will mean ensuring women’s rights, but also preventing the dumping of U.S. crops in foreign markets, the removal of agriculture from the World Trade Organization, and support for land reform and sustainable agriculture. These are ideas that come directly from the fields, that are part of a chorus of 150 million farmers, peasants, and landless people around the world who have been saying ‘yes we can,’ despite violence and poverty, for two decades. Why not let the change begin with the ideas of those who have been fighting hardest for it?”
Gordon Jenkins, director of Eat-Ins.org:
“You’ve already read Michael Pollan’s article in the New York Times Magazine, so you know that you can’t deal with our climate, energy, and health care crises without addressing food and agriculture. The generation of young people that’s inheriting the food system is ready for green jobs in sustainable food production. Create policy and invest in programs to incubate new farmers and train us to grow and share food that is good for us, good for the planet, and good for our communities. We will follow your lead.”
Patrick Boleman, coordinator of FLO Food and student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill:
“Mr. Obama, if you are committed to sustainability as you say, I urge you to consider fundamentally changing the way the American food system operates. You must remember that true sustainability means more than protecting our environment; it involves providing economic vitality while promoting social well-being at the same time. Combating large-scale agribusiness that focuses on the mass production and distribution of monoculture crops while promoting a more localized distribution system can do all three. A more decentralized food system will necessitate a growth in the number of independent farms.
“By creating a more local, decentralized food distribution system, you eliminate an immense amount of energy use involved with the transportation and processing of our food. This can greatly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, while at the same time decrease our dependence on petroleum based products. As you well know, the majority of our energy in the United States comes from non-renewable resources and agribusiness is fueled by chemicals created from foreign oil.
“The lack of regulation regarding the working conditions of workers on U.S. farms and processing facilities is utterly absurd and should be embarrassing to a country that claims to spread democracy around the world.”
Debbie Barker, director, Navdanya U.S.:
“Thanks for running such a graceful campaign; you’ve given me a reason to have faith in this country again. During your campaign you spoke about the need to build renewable energy resources in this country. Our current industrial food system is almost never discussed in relationship to energy and climate, yet it is one of the most energy intensive activities of our economy and also one of the largest contributors to greenhouse-gas emissions. Re-crafting agriculture policies so that they favor locally based, ecological farming would be one of the quickest ways to de-link from fossil fuel dependency and would reduce our emissions (perhaps by up to 25 percent). And, of course, there would be many other benefits: safe, nutritious food; creation of good carbon (soil!); secure food supply, as-green-as-green-can-be job creation (!), and more. Changing our food economy will help build a new society of true democracy and sustainability. Let’s dare to imagine: as Vandana Shiva advises — ‘soil not oil’ — yes, we can!”
Members of the Coalition for Immokalee Workers:
“We know you’re a busy man, so we’ll get right to the point: Come to Immokalee.
“Your victory has allowed us to dream again. Our dream is for a U.S. food industry founded on respect for human rights, not exploitation of human beings. That’s why it’s so important for you to come to Immokalee, the town that in many ways has come to symbolize the struggle of millions of our nation’s farmworkers to survive in the face of grinding poverty, degrading working conditions, and constant human rights violations the town that one federal prosecutor called ground zero for modern-day slavery. Indeed, the most recent Department of Justice prosecution for slavery helped free workers who were forced to pick tomatoes against their will, were chained and locked inside U-haul trucks, and were beaten by farm labor bosses right here in Immokalee.
“We know you’ve got a lot on your plate. The economic crisis, two wars, climate change … the brutal and unending exploitation of farmworkers, no matter how terrible, just doesn’t rise to the level of the innumerable crises you’ve inherited. We understand that. But we ask you: Where else could so little of your time have such a great impact? With one brief visit, you would bring more attention to the disgraceful treatment of our country’s farmworkers than all the Harvest of Shame expos, slavery prosecutions, Congressional hearings, and U.S. presidents since Lincoln combined. With our Campaign for Fair Food, we could turn that attention into action and end generations of farm labor abuse once and for all. All we need is the right champion, someone who truly cares about the working poor, someone who represents hope to Americans who have been marginalized for far too long: someone like you. And we can do it with just a couple hours of your time.”
Erika Allen, Chicago Projects Manager, Growing Power:
“We are witness to a profound shift in consciousness and power with the election of you, Mr. Obama, to the highest office in our nation. This is humbling for all of us to witness and be part of. I can only imagine what it must be like for you, to be the instrument that could potentially unify our collective ability to solve some of the world’s ills within our lifetime. Some of dreams and visions of our forebearers and ancestors have begun to be realized, and somehow this is the beginning of a new reality. Wow!
“With this hope, let’s get moving! As an African-American woman of mixed heritage, born out of the civil rights movement, I would like to see our true diversity represented in our nation’s capital to provide much-needed perspective to our leadership. We also must take a more active role in forming and influencing the new policies and programs that impact our environment and food system with a realization that our actions impact our brothers and sisters globally. This takes on more relevance when it is claimed and worked on by members of the communities most affected. For it is clear that the re-education of our communities, in terms of food and taste literacy, should coincide with our efforts to rebuild our family farms and food systems, and to do so, we must attain a baseline of cultural competency and reckoning of the baggage many of our constituents face on a daily basis. This is an opportunity for communities of color and the impoverished to grow fair and equitable local food and community food systems for the first time in our nation’s history.
“Growing Power’s Chicago office manages a small urban farm that served as backdrop for Tuesday’s victory celebration. The farm, full of culturally based vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers, is farmed seasonally by African-American youth who learn where food comes from and who now have the hope that the beautiful farm in downtown Chi-town could be on their block. The dream of the garden is that every community has a beautiful, bountiful, and chemical-free farm that secures a neighborhood’s food health and safety.
“My hope is that we all see ourselves as new leaders and begin to strategically transform our urban and rural environments into the nurturing, abundant land we have envisioned and was always destined to be, for all. To be growing food and justice for all!”