Change We Can Eat: an Immodest Proposal for Obama’s Food Policy

Within hours of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack’s nomination as agriculture secretary, the web was humming with well-documented critiques of his troubling affinity for genetically engineered crops, Monsanto, and other agribusiness interests. Some expressed outrage, others surprise, after mounting a vigorous, 55,000-plus strong online petition effort to nominate a more progressive pick who would promote sustainable food and farming.

Obama’s pick of Vilsack offers more proof of the incoming administration’s unwavering centrism – meaning they’ll need to hear from sustainability and food justice advocates, and other progressive forces, early and often.

I join the chorus of dissenting voices, but also encourage the food justice and sustainability movement to keep its sights fixed on the future. While protesting the Vilsack choice is important, it’s equally vital and timely to launch a national education and policy campaign on core issues, and to keep building the so-called “alternative” food system – farmer’s markets, local food projects, farm-to-school, foodsheds, and others – into an everyday option for everyone.

To this end, I propose a focused, dare I say united push for a sustainable food justice platform including elements from sustainable food and agriculture, sustainable anti-hunger, good food for all, community food security, and related movements. Such a platform could be used both for educational and political purposes, for shaping public consciousness and lobbying the Obama administration and Congress. For the sake of unity and clarity, it should be simple and uniting, even if not fully inclusive. To re-launch this idea, which has been mentioned before in other forms, I would suggest it include, among other things, in one order or another:

1. New public investments targeting sustainable agriculture, defined as organic, small to mid-sized, diversified farming;

2. New public investments in local/regional food networks and foodsheds – to help build up the connections between farmers and consumers, to open up and expand new markets for organic farmers and those considering the transition; for more farmer’s markets and local food stores featuring local produce;

3. A moratorium on agribusiness mergers, and strenuous anti-trust provisions and enforcement to protect what little is left of economic diversity in the food economy;

4. A moratorium on all new GMO products, and on expansion of existing ones, and appointment of a blue-ribbon panel/commission on GMO foods’ environmental and health impacts;

5. A moratorium on – and gradual phasing out of – concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), a.k.a. factory farms, which are among the nation’s top polluters of water and air, and breeders of exponentially widespread and virulent bacterial strains;

6. Dramatically expanded regulatory enforcement and staffing in USDA and FDA, to protect food safety and meat industry labor and environmental practices;

7. Slowing the meatpacking (and poultry) assembly line, to protect workers and consumers

8. Incentives for small-scale urban, suburban and rural farming ventures oriented toward diversified local food systems;

9. Bold public investment in a raft of public awareness campaigns that build support, and expand markets and demand, for sustainable alternatives such as urban agriculture and gardening, reducing fast food consumption;

10. Fill in the blank, and write me at

This is at once an incomplete yet immodestly wishful list to be sure – but one that I hope can be of use in compelling greater public and policy support for a new sustainable food system. I welcome your input and feedback on this work in progress, and sincerely hope it bolsters the already-feisty movements lobbying for real systemic change – change we can eat.

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  1. maus
    Friday, December 19th, 2008
    "mounting a vigorous, 55,000-plus strong online petition effort"

    Really though, while I support the fight for sustainable food.

    Internet petitions are far more than useless, they waste time and make people think they're doing something good. They do NOTHING.

    Not even a TV show has been resurrected by the magic of internet petitions, they're too lazy and easy to fudge information on.

    Either mail or call people of worth, don't bother with the internet for anything other than organizational purposes.
  2. Saturday, December 20th, 2008
    It's time to take back the control that the US farmers have always had to grow crops from year to year with their own seeds. This will not only support the farmers and their families but will supply the USA with natural wholesome produce that most of us grew up on in the past.

  3. Melina Paris
    Monday, December 29th, 2008
    What about bringing information on sustainable farming and on GMO Food to the school districts and to the PTA's. Between the school district & the parents if informed correctly there is a good chance quite a few of them would not want their children eating this stuff (it's got to be in the school lunches). With knowledge & help on how to avoid these "Foods" Schools may be inclined to start their own vegetable gardens.
    I think if we can get the parent's attention on this issue that is one of the best starting points. We all want to protect our kids.