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As health care, finance, and climate bills lurch through Congress, buffeted and compromised by the very industries they seek to rein in, the question of whether our political system is actually capable of real reform arises. Could it be that corporate lobbies are so powerful that current dysfunctions are entrenched? Are we doomed to be a society that lets its sick suffer and its bankers create the effective equivalent of Ponzi schemes, while fossil fuel industries pump greenhouse gases into a warming atmosphere?

These questions are critically relevant to the food system. True, the next farm bill doesn’t fall until 2013; but early this year, Congress and the President will have to reauthorize the school-lunch program. Will they continue to fund it at current miserly levels, dooming public school children to consume stuff like hamburgers adulterated with an ammonia-laced filler known in some industry quarters as “pink slime”? If the past year’s legislative battles have taught us anything, it’s that true school-lunch reform, under current conditions, will be difficult to achieve.

Michael Pollan has for a while now been pointing to a way out of the reform stalemate caused by the power of lobbies: that space for reform opens when powerful lobbies turn against one another. Pollan appeared last night on the Daily Show, promoting his new book Food Rules. He made a point he has made before: if even a modicum of health care reform passes, one that bars insurers from denying coverage to sick people or purging them when they get sick, than the interests of the mighty insurance industry will turn against those of the mighty agribusiness/processed-food industry. The insurance industry, forced at least on some level to deal with the chronic illnesses caused by the U.S. diet, will join the food-reform movement, Pollan predicts. Backed by a well-heeled industry lobby, the movement will be empowered to create real change.

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It’s a path to reform that owes more to the ideas of Machiavelli than to those of Thomas Paine, but if it works …

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