Cookbook Profile

The Politics of Food

Pork is more than just the other white meat. Political pork is the driving force behind needless overproduction in agricultural states where congressional representatives bring home federal farm subsidies.

The lion's share of these subsidies go not to the mythical "family farmer" so often evoked by politicians on both sides of the aisle, but to giant agribusinesses looking to fatten their bottom line. While factory farming isn't all bad (it may even be the route to affordable organic foods for the masses), paying off corporations for political support is undemocratic, and it undermines our natural environment. Protectionist tariffs, like those recently imposed on farmed catfish from Vietnam, undermine a proven ecologically responsible industry in a sensitive region to coddle a domestic niche in politically valuable Southern states. Cheese connoisseurs in the United States have lamented for years that fine, artisanal European cheeses are disingenuously prohibited because of so-called health protections. Obviously, the French, Italians, and Spanish aren't dropping like flies with every bite of raw-milk Morbier, Taleggio, and Cabrales. Could lobbyists for America's hormone-crazed dairy industry be behind the ban? Food quality and prices are more closely linked to government policy than many people know.

Agricultural Doublespeak

We love our cheap food in this country as much as we love our cheap gasoline. Most Americans think that farm subsidies are keeping food affordable. But agricultural subsidies hide the real cost of our foods, by artifically depressing prices of domestically produced goods with money paid by taxpayers. It's like giving the ice cream man a couple of hundred bucks every summer in return for a promise that he'll keep the price of a cone at one dollar. Sugar is the most egregious example, but wheat, soy, rice, and corn (the most heavily subsidized crop) also have hidden costs. Soy, mostly used as livestock feed in the meat industry, seldom reaches our plates in the healthy form of soy protein. Instead, it shows up as inexpensive (read: subsidized) oil and margarine, staples of processed foods. Both sugar and corn contribute to the massive oversweetening of the American diet that many nutritionists believe has led to the obesity epidemic in the U.S. I personally believe the roots of our country's weight problem lie mostly with excessive portion sizes and unwise individual choices, but one could argue that these are fueled by cheap food, too. In any case, this is less a book about health and good looks than a discussion of how what's beneficial for us in the short run can wreck our land in the long run.

Subsidies on food production give domestic producers a leg up on foreign competitors. I guess that was the original intention of most of these expensive programs. But while we encourage other peoples to adopt our economic system and values, we demand that they live up to standards we don't expect of ourselves. America encouraged impoverished Vietnamese farmers to convert their rice paddies into catfish farms so that they could produce a more lucrative crop and lift themselves out of economic stagnation (presumably so they could buy more American goods). But when they proved highly successful at raising catfish and began to export them, the U.S. put up trade barriers to protect domestic catfish farmers.

The farm bill signed in May 2002 by President George W. Bush represented nearly $200 billion in agricultural subsidies, mostly going to large corporate farms. The result is a vast oversupply and lower prices, which will inevitably lead to calls for more subsidies. I wish I could say that just one political party was the party of big subsidies, and the other was the one to vote for if you're concerned about destructive and wasteful farm policies. But on this issue, both major parties have shameful histories.

If farm subsidies are so counterproductive, enriching megafarm corporations far more than the much-glorified family farmer and supporting destructive encroachment of farming into ecologically sensitive areas, why hasn't the process been eliminated yet? The answer is simple: politics. Leaders of farm states need subsidy-supported farmers' votes, so they use all of their leverage, on both sides of the political aisle, to maintain the status quo. It's the most brazen example of buying votes in the country.

Science Takes Its Lumps

No administration has manipulated science to suit its own agenda as much as the administration of George W. Bush. From its endless "wait and see" approach to looming crises like global warming to the promotion of mineral and oil exploration in sensitive ecological areas, the Bush administration has chosen industry giveaways over science every time. Food policy reflects this approach. For example, the administration's policy makers redefined the term "wild" so that hatchery fish are counted in with threatened wild steelhead trout species. This enables them to fill Western rivers with genetically different hatchery spawn so they can circumvent protections that regulate irrigation diversions—a giveaway to corporate farmers looking for more free water. Similarly, the administration has made rule changes that will count hatchery salmon in with wild, so that much larger counts will be used to assess whether to remove fifteen species of salmon from federal threatened and endangered species lists.

Fiddling While Rome Burns: Regulatory Games

Our employer-employee relationship with our elected representatives is an odd one. We hire them to enact our interests into law, but we can't exactly give them direct orders. Once they're hired, they can pretty much do as they please, at least until the next election comes around. Lately, many of the people we've hired to represent us in Congress have approached their jobs as though by doing nothing, they'll offend no one.

As industrial fishing operations strip-mine the oceans of large fish (wiping out 90 percent of them over the last thirty years), three initiatives to protect oceans and estuaries languish. Our leaders instead choose to debate the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance. While millions of gallons of fuel are burned flying foreign foods to our shores, consumers remain uninformed about the origins of most of their foods. A provision of the otherwise-egregious 2002 Farm Bill mandating country-of-origin labeling lies idle, while our representatives refine the definition of marriage. While consumers unknowingly buy severely depleted wild fish, legislation that would require stores to label fish as farmed or wild sits in limbo. Our elected officials are busy enacting additional tax cuts that will incur debts for future generations. Unfortunately, endangered birds, fish, forests, flora, and fauna have no voice—no representatives. But from the looks of our latest congressional sessions, it wouldn't do them much good anyway.

The White House has become much stronger because of Congress's inaction. Under the administration of George W. Bush, environmental regulations have been weakened, ecologically sensitive areas have been exploited for mineral wealth, polluters have been given massive breaks, and environmentalists have been maligned as nuisances at best, traitors at worst. In his drive to link every part of his agenda with the terror attacks of September 11 and the all-encompassing war on terror, the president has implied that opponents of his oil-drilling initiatives in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge support continued dependence on oil from despotic Middle Eastern states. In rejecting the Kyoto global warming treaty, he severed U.S. environmental policy from that of the rest of the civilized world. A former head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for two Republican presidents called President Bush's record a "polluter protection" policy, saying he's weakened the Clean Air Act, among other things. The administration's disastrous policies, combined with Congress's inaction, have set America on a downhill slide that may take years to reverse. Food policy, strongly tied to land and ocean management policies, needs major attention from our politicians. Only a few are taking action.

The tug-of-war between the interests of the food industry and the concerns of voters sometimes forces politicians to choose between corporate and public benefit. Crop subsidies, drinking water protection, origin labeling, and organic certification are some issues where congressmen must grapple with their two constituencies: big donors and individual voters. The big donors fuel campaigns that draw more individual voters, so the choice is often money driven. That may be what decided the awful Farm Bill of 2002.

That single piece of legislation, originally intended by senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) as an ecologically constructive way to give small farmers a hand while ending huge agricultural subsidies, morphed into the most destructive policy the administration had undertaken until the Iraq invasion. It ended up costing taxpayers $248 billion—representing an increase of more than 80 percent over the 1996 Farm Bill. Since the aid focuses its cash largesse mainly on eight "program" crops (cotton, wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, barley, oats, and sorghum), it predom

inantly benefits breadbasket states, which happen to be electoral swing states.

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, the Food and Drug Administration did the beef and feed industries a huge favor: It slowed down. Following revelations about a case of mad cow disease in Washington State in 2003, the federal regulators had promised to swiftly reform practices in the meat industry that foment disease. But, in an effort to placate corporate sponsors of the Bush administration, the agency took steps to delay the most significant changes involving what could and could not be included in animal feed. Breaking with years of nonpartisan tradition, in 2004 the National Cattlemen's Association endorsed President Bush for reelection immediately after the delays were announced. It's common for agencies to go into semihibernation around election time, a process known as "slow rolling" to ensure that no controversial decisions upset the reelection campaign. But with the health of the American people and the welfare of tens of millions of animals at stake, this case of government inaction is particularly egregious.

We who care deeply about the Earth and other living things need to take back our policy-making role in this country. That means choosing candidates who stand up for the environment. To review ratings for all senators and congressional representatives, look at environmental scorecards and environmental group endorsements on the following Web sites: and


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The Ethical Gourmet
by Jay Weinstein
368 pages; Paperback; $19.95
ISBN: 0-7679-1834-7
Recipe reprinted by permission.


The Ethical Gourmet




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This page created July 2006