Photograph by Cynthia Mendoza/U.S. Department of Agriculture
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A cow stands beside an empty water hole caused by the drought on Walnut Creek Ranch in California.
Photograph by Cynthia Mendoza/U.S. Department of Agriculture
The Plate

Reorganizing U.S. Food Policy: What Would It Take?

Should the United States have a national food policy? And if it did, what else would it need to make that policy work?

A few weeks ago, an important piece ran in the Washington Post asking the first question, and answering it affirmatively. It has been a busy few news weeks in the U.S., however, and the piece, co-authored by four important figures in the national conversation about food, got less attention than it might otherwise have. So I thought it was time to revisit the idea, and ask what such a policy would look like, and how it would work.

The piece—by writers Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan; agronomist Ricardo Salvador of the Union of Concerned Scientists; and Olivier de Schutter, until recently the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to food—argued that food production, distribution and consumption represent the largest sector of the U.S. economy, yet come under no national plan nor single official. (Unlike, for instance, the U.S. response to Ebola, which immediately got an “Ebola czar.” Remember him?)

That lack of attention, they contended, is inappropriate when food is entwined with climate change and environmental protection, federal spending and private-sector profits, and land use and public health. Because of that lack of attention, they said, no one is scrutinizing the food system’s role in creating hundreds of thousands of unnecessary illnesses and deaths each year from obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease—all food-related illnesses—nor to the way in which policies promoting farm growth conflict with ones regulating environmental harm.

80% of food-related illnesses are caused by unknown pathogens. Watch this video to learn more about foodborne illnesses.

“Government policy in these areas is made piecemeal,” they wrote. “Diet-related chronic disease, food safety, marketing to children, labor conditions, wages for farm and food-chain workers, immigration, water and air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and support for farmers: These issues are all connected to the food system. Yet they are overseen by eight federal agencies. Amid this incoherence, special interests thrive and the public good suffers.”

The four writers called on President Obama to elide Congressional gridlock by using the power of an Executive Order to force change. They recommended he state a national policy that balances public health values against agricultural interests—paying attention to food safety, price transparency, worker protections, children’s health, animal welfare and climate resiliency—and create a White House council to ensure federal agencies are not working at cross-purposes.

The idea of a national food policy is alluring, and not so far-fetched as it might seem: As the writers pointed out, some U.S. cities, and some foreign countries, have either actual food policies, or councils devoted to articulating them. I wonder, though, whether even a White House-level group could bring order to the fractious competition that occurs in almost every aspect of food production and distribution: livestock productivity versus antibiotic use, for instance, or beverage company revenues versus childhood obesity rates.

In fact, I wonder whether the authors, as far-thinking as they are, didn’t go far enough—and whether what’s needed isn’t just a national food policy to articulate change, but a national food agency to make it happen.

Think about it: As the op-ed states, eight federal agencies share responsibility for keeping track of various aspects of food—policy, trade, sales and safety—in the U.S. (Actually, a Government Accountability Office report estimates that 15 agencies may be involved.) With so much turf to compete over, how could any set of teams agree on any issues? That there would be conflicts, and thus a lack of action, is baked into the system. Perhaps it’s time for that to change.

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Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met with German Minister of Agriculture Christian Schmidt to discuss mutual agricultural production, marketing, and trade relations at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Photograph by Bob Nichols/U.S. Department of Agriculture

The idea of creating a single food agency is not a new one. Nonprofits such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Consumer Federation of America have been calling for one for a decade, and legislation has periodically surfaced in Congress that would give the government’s various food functions one home. Food-policy scholar Marion Nestle of New York University has argued for a single agency as one way of solving the conflict of interest imposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dual mission of policing the production of food while stimulating its sale.

And within the government, both the Office of Management and Budget and the Government Accountability Office have called for consolidation of food safety efforts into a single unit. Currently those efforts are split between the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (with FDA, which oversees many more foods than USDA, somehow having a lower budget and fewer personnel). The GAO’s recommendations on this go back to 1999.

Given where we are in the political cycle—in the last two years of a two-term presidency, after unbalanced election results, and with a White House and Congress that seem irrevocably at odds—it may seem like an infelicitous time to call for major federal change.

And yet, as the op-ed writers suggest, this may be exactly the time when action is called for. It would create permanent change in food in the US if the administration, answering that call, were willing to be bold.

If you’re interested in food policy, listen to leading food experts discuss food security during a panel held at National Geographic headquarters in May 2014.

Future of Food: Food Security in an Insecure World