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Politics of Food

By | March 20, 2012

In his 2008 book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Michael Pollan advised people to restore simplicity to food practices. Pollan’s message, clearly encapsulated as, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” resonated strongly with the myriad groups and differentiated movements that have morphed into “the food movement.” In stressing simplicity, these recent efforts at food reform have differed from their predecessors by moving past the politics of food production, regulation, and inspection. They focus instead on the diverse ethical, cultural, environmental, and health implications of food. Yet, despite that broad focus, the recent food movement is inherently political.  By challenging us to slow down and carefully consider the consequences of food consumption and creation, the movement and its crisscrossing components challenge us to rethink the role of government in the new “politics” of food.

Though the movement often strives for simplicity in food practices, its debates hardly have narrow scope.  In one subset of food politics, health and lifestyle concerns drive efforts to change America’s “food culture” and render its defining practices more sustainable.  This has given rise to campaigns promoting gardening, composting, healthy cooking, and food literacy.  Likewise, as Americans continue to struggle against diet-related illnesses, government health experts are tasked with balancing the country’s needs for greater access to quality food (online article) and limiting unhealthy food in programs such as school lunches.  This debate is central to efforts to reform the food stamp program, where ensuring positive health outcomes is more important than ever, given that one out of every seven Americans currently uses the program.  In these instances, the food movement has stressed the importance of fostering positive relationships with healthy food.

Elsewhere, there is concern about how governments impact agricultural practices.  From subsidies in the U.S. Farm Bill to preferential trade policies for European agricultural producers in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, debate as to which crops should be supported and what effects those preferential policies have on developing foreign markets. Genetically modified crops, and their potentially controversial environmental effects, are also included in this discussion. Furthermore, political moves to support agriculture at the expense of natural resources have recently come under fire, as with the Florida Everglades.

Ultimately, moves towards sustainable, grass-grazed, cage-free, and organic foods, as well as improved food access and culture, form the backbone of the modern food movement. Still, as China’s example shows, oversight is still necessary, particularly when concerning the deceptive food-marketing tactics of corporations in the developing world.  If there is one overarching goal that everyone in the food movement agrees on, it is avoiding exporting past mistakes of the United States’ unsustainable and unhealthy food practices abroad.

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