Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney at Holland State Park, June 19, 2012, in Holland, Mich.

The election is creeping up on us fast. And while many indicators, from Intrade markets to various academic models to New York Times statistics and public survey expert Nate Silver, seem to predict an Obama victory, there is the possibility (many liberal commentators might say “a probability”) that America could elect Mitt Romney.

In preparation, then, it’s not a bad idea to take stock of what we know about Romney’s food and agriculture policy. Dan Flynn at Food Safety News has already taken to predicting who would staff the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under Romney (Hint: It’s all former GOP USDA officials and businessmen). The list was purely speculative, with names mostly drawn from members of Romney’s current agricultural advisory team. And while there’s no hard information out there to tell us who Romney might select to head the agencies that oversee food and agriculture policy, it’s worth attempting a review of his policy positions.

Of course, we’re talking about Mitt Romney here. The man is running a campaign that’s light on policy and light on facts. While his food and ag platform is not quite the blank page that his climate change policy is, there’s precious little to be found. There’s no rural policy or agricultural policy section on his campaign website. Scouring his website for references to agriculture brings up a “coalition page” called “Farmers and Ranchers for Romney.” The top post in this section is entitled “An Energy Blueprint for America” — and it doesn’t even mention ethanol! Nor will you find a mention of … food.

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The campaign’s immigration page makes a nod toward easing the visa process for seasonal workers, but there’s no discussion of comprehensive reform — something that the agricultural sector wants. Romney is in a bit of a bind, of course, because Republican governors in several states have passed draconian immigration laws that have hurt farmers’ ability to find workers to harvest their crops.

And that’s pretty much it.

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Thankfully, one of the main produce industry lobbying groups, United Fresh, asked both Gov. Romney and President Obama to answer a set of questions about the produce industry’s top issues: immigration, food safety, agricultural regulation, the farm bill, taxes, and nutrition. The group then posted both campaigns’ responses — Obama’s here [PDF] and Romney’s here [PDF].

Predictably, in his answers, the president pointed to many of the administration’s initiatives that benefit so-called “specialty crop” (aka fruit, vegetable, and nut) growers. For example, Obama’s response to the farm bill question, which asked the president where he thought specialty crops fit into the debate, offered the USDA’s emphasis on regional food systems and access to healthy food as a sign of his commitment.

Granted, the nutrition question, which itself invoked Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools program and the increase in USDA’s recommendations for daily intake of fruits and vegetables, was a softball for Obama. Meanwhile, on food safety, he pointed to new ways his administration set up systems to manage risk and cut down on food-borne illness (interestingly, he didn’t mention the Food Safety Modernization Act, the huge bill that passed last year but is currently sitting in rule-making limbo and is the center of a lawsuit by advocacy group The Center for Food Safety).

While his responses are generally supportive of food system advocates’ priorities, it’s not as if the Obama administration hasn’t disappointed them. In fact, like other recent administrations, it loves GMOs, pesticides, farm insurance, and voluntary corporate guidelines too much and sustainable agriculture, public health, and the regulatory power of the state too little.

But Obama did have plenty to say and several specific policies to promote.

Romney? Not so much. He responded to the question on “comprehensive immigration reform” with a reference to a “national immigration strategy” focused almost entirely on reducing paperwork for visas. On the farm bill, Romney had no policy prescriptions at all. But don’t despair! He “appreciates” and “recognizes” the importance of farm policy and will pursue “pro-trade” export policies. That’s it, folks. I’m not summarizing. Nada.

He didn’t have much more to say on nutrition — and didn’t even bother to acknowledge the importance of getting your fruits and veggies (not even in a questionnaire from the people who grow them!). After all, as he put it in his answer, “the federal government should not dictate what every American eats.” But fear not! Romney believes “an emphasis on a balanced diet will be crucial to addressing this crisis and public health programs in a Romney Administration will highlight the importance of healthy eating.” Obesity epidemic? Solved.

The most disturbing Romney answer, however, had to be his response to the question abut food safety. Here it is in full:

Q. With greater regulatory oversight, and greater investment by the industry into food safety for fresh produce, how can your administration ensure that food safety events (detections, outbreaks, recalls) are conducted in a way that protects public health without imposing crippling costs and liabilities on produce industry companies? Do you believe that food safety programs that are mandated by federal regulations are of benefit to the general public, and therefore should be funded largely by the federal government?

A. Thankfully, American farmers and producers, specifically the produce industry, have a long history of taking responsibility for food safety. Preventive practices are the best tool to reduce the incidence of food-borne illnesses, provide more control over the potential risks of contamination, and are generally the most cost effective. Governor Romney believes preventative practices are best developed by growers, handlers, processors, and others in the supply chain with specific knowledge of the risks, diversity of operations in the industry, and feasibility of potential mitigation strategies.

Governor Romney believes the FDA must collaborate with industry, in cooperation with state agencies and academia, to develop specific guidance for the commodities most often associated with food-borne illness outbreaks. A Romney Administration will prioritize this type of cooperation and collaboration with industry on the part of all agencies charged with protecting public health.

No one’s going to argue with prevention, of course. But note that Romney “believes preventative practices are best developed by growers, handlers, processors, and others in the supply chain.” That smells a lot like a desire to substitute strict regulation with voluntary guidance. It’s bad enough that the FDA has taken this approach to antibiotics in agriculture; most experts believe it will do nothing to address the growing threat of antibiotic resistance. But expanding voluntary guidelines to food safety? That seems, well, nuts.

You can argue, if you like, that Romney was “brave” and telling the “hard truths” by not saying to the produce lobby simply what he thought they wanted to hear. Or you can argue, as I would, that he didn’t say much because he really didn’t have anything to say. Food and agricultural policy is hugely complex and touches on people’s everyday lives in multiple and various ways. It would be nice if it sounded even remotely like Romney cared.