Obama-McCain Gothic

Will the next president be tough enough to defy the wishes of agribusiness?
Apologies to Grant Wood

Last month at Slow Food Nation, Michael Pollan made an interesting point about food policy and presidential politics. Food issues won’t likely play much of a role during the campaign’s stretch run, Pollan said, but the winning candidate will almost certainly be forced to confront them directly over the next four years.

That’s because burgeoning crises in climate, energy, and health care can no longer be ignored — and food policy plays a central role in all three, Pollan said.

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I wish I shared his optimism about politicians’ willingness to confront dire situations, but his point is well-taken. Food has indeed been largely forgotten in the 2008 presidential campaign, but it may well be a major issue in its aftermath. Given that reality, what do we know about the major candidates’ policies on food?

So far, campaign 2008 has been dominated by “Palinology” and the tragicomedy of Wall Street’s meltdown, but the candidates (or at least their advisers) have offered hints about their attitudes toward food policy.

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McCain: Food Maverick?

John McCain’s “Prosperity for Rural America” document offers much to please the agribusiness lobby. In it, the GOP candidate vows to limit the “unnecessary intervention of government regulations that severely alter or limit the ability of the family farm to produce efficiently.” Despite the heartening reference to the “family farm,” that statement is probably a coded promise to maintain comically lax oversight of confined-animal feedlot operations and their titanic output of toxic waste.

McCain also pledges to ram open foreign markets to U.S. farm goods — another topic dear to agribusiness. “John McCain believes that globalization is an opportunity for American agriculture,” the statement declares. A McCain administration would “engage in multilateral, regional, and bilateral efforts to reduce barriers to trade, level the global playing field, and vigorously defend the rights of American agriculture.”

On a couple of key points, McCain diverges from the traditional farm-lobby script. He’s a longtime critic of federal support for ethanol production (save for occasional lapses during the GOP primary season, when at times he seemed to embrace the corn-based fuel). Many sustainable-agriculture advocates, including me, see the various federal programs that boost ethanol production as a force for intensifying industrial agriculture’s grip over the nation’s most productive farmland — essentially, $5 billion per year in taxpayer support for the worst kind of farming.

In his rural document, McCain awkwardly tries to stake out a middle ground on the ethanol question. “I won’t support subsidizing every alternative or tariffs that restrict the healthy competition that stimulates innovation and lower costs,” he declares. Even so, “I’ll encourage the development of infrastructure and market growth necessary for these products [i.e., ethanol] to compete, and let consumers choose the winners.”

But in a genuinely bold swipe at the sometime free-market zealots who champion federal ethanol handouts, McCain’s policy statement adds this: “I’ve never known an American entrepreneur worthy of the name who wouldn’t rather compete for sales than subsidies.” A plank in the 2008 GOP platform would eliminate federal ethanol mandates. Of course, with his talk of defunding ethanol, McCain is alienating one agribusiness faction (ethanol producers like Archer Daniels Midland) but pleasing another (industrial-meat producers like Tyson, whose profits have been squeezed by high corn prices).

McCain has also long lashed out against farm subsidies, and on this he doesn’t waver. The policy statement puts it bluntly: “Consistent with his long-standing position, John McCain opposes subsidies, which distort markets, artificially raise prices for consumers, and interfere with America’s ability to negotiate with our international trading partners to the detriment of the entire agriculture community.”

While an impressive break with large-scale Midwestern farm interests, this position is hardly the maverick stance it might seem at first glance. As I’ve argued before, gutting subsidies without coming up with new ways to support an ecologically sound, socially just food system solves nothing. McCain’s plan subjects farmers to the whims of the “free market” — which in the case of food is dominated by a few extremely powerful companies. Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto, and their like are more interested in opening foreign markets than maintaining subsidies for U.S. farmers. Thus, the alleged “maverick” isn’t really challenging the status quo here.

Indeed, McCain seems utterly oblivious to the concept of sustainable agriculture; he never mentions it once in his rural document, nor in any other statement of his I can find. He seems intent on letting “the market” work its magic on the food. In effect, that means standing idly while a few big companies retain their grip over our food supply.

Obama: Hope for Change, or Business as Usual?

If McCain ignores sustainable agriculture in his policy paper, Obama at least nods to it in his. Overall, his Real Leadership for Rural America [PDF] is scant on details, but contains plenty to cheer food-system reformers.

For example, to boost organic farming, the document promises to “increase funding for the National Organic Certification Cost-Share Program to help farmers afford the costs of compliance with national organic certification standards.” To draw young people into farming, the Obama camp pledges to “establish a new program to identify the next generation of farmers and ranchers and help them develop professional skills and find work that leads to farm ownership and management.”

These initiatives target real and vexing troubles — the relatively tiny amount of U.S. land under organic cultivation (about 3 percent of total farmland) and the lack of young people going into farming (the average age of the American farmer stands at 55). These proposals seem too paltry to really resolve these long-standing issues, but it would certainly be amazing to have someone in the Oval Office who recognizes them as problems. Along those lines, I’m impressed by the document’s promise to “implement USDA policies that promote local and regional food systems” — even if details are non-existent.

Even more impressively, Obama talks big about challenging the dominance of agribusiness over the nation’s food supply. In a section that reads like music to my ears, the document declares that: “in an era of market consolidation, Barack Obama and Joe Biden will fight to ensure family and independent farmers have fair access to markets, control over their production decisions, and transparency in prices.”

The document specifically challenges the meat industry, wherein the four biggest players control upwards of 60 percent of pork, chicken, and beef production. It pledges to defend “small- and mid-sized farmers against discrimination by meatpackers,” to “strengthen anti-monopoly laws,” and to challenge “large, vertically integrated corporate agribusiness.”

And in sharp contrast to McCain’s laissez-faire view on CAFO pollution, Obama vows a crackdown: In the Obama administration, “the Environmental Protection Agency will strictly monitor and regulate pollution from large CAFOs, with fines for those who violate tough air and water quality standards.” That would certainly mark a change of course for the EPA.

However, Obama’s platform hardly amounts to an all-out blitz on chemical agriculture. Many sustainable-agriculture advocates wish he’d take a harder line on farm subsidies. His ag document calls for a $250,000 cap on payments to farmers — far from a revolutionary change in the subsidy system.

More egregiously, Obama’s policy statement reads like a veritable love letter to federal support for ethanol production. Since being jacked up by federal mandates in 2006, ethanol production has sparked a gusher of environmentally destructive agrichemicals on Midwestern farmland and caused global food prices to spike, fueling hunger crises in parts of the developing world. Obama’s response? Increase federal support for ethanol. Current federal law mandates that ethanol production rise to 36 billion gallons by 2022 — with each gallon costing the U.S. Treasury $0.49 in tax breaks. That’s not enough for Obama; he wants to raise the mandate to 60 billion gallons by 2022.

Agribusiness as usual?

In the end, Pollan is likely right: Whatever the candidates are saying now (or not saying at all), events may require the 44th president to deal with food issues in ways that break radically with past policies. Silly ideas like propping up ethanol production may soon be unthinkable. One candidate has demonstrated openness to the notion of sustainable agriculture and “local and regional food systems”; the other hasn’t. Neither will likely push bold change unless forced to do so.