Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt of Marion Nestle’s new book, Let’s Ask Marion: What You Need to Know about the Politics of Food, Nutrition and Health, out this week. In each of the book’s chapters, the New York University professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health (and Civil Eats’ advisory board member) answers a different food policy question posed by environmental advocate Kerry Trueman. (Longtime Civil Eats readers will remember our own version of these conversations starting in 2010.) With the presidential election upon us, we share Nestle’s response about the need for a national food policy agency.
Kerry Trueman: We demand a lot from our government agencies. We want them to be there for us when disaster strikes or disease breaks out. We want policies that protect us from danger and help us lead healthy lives.
But what happens when an agency has multiple agendas that conflict? Like, for example, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), whose mission is to help farmers turn a profit, while also promoting healthy eating habits. We end up with an agency whose agricultural policies actively encourage diseases that cost millions of lives and billions of dollars annually, even as its nutrition policies try to tackle those same largely preventable illnesses.
Academics, “good food” advocates, and health care experts have proposed that we break this vicious cycle by creating a national food policy agency that would adopt a more enlightened approach. Can you imagine such an agency?
Marion Nestle: Easily. I’m often asked what I would do if I were the boss of America’s food system. High on my action list would be reorganizing federal food and nutrition policies to get them all focused on preventing hunger, promoting health, and protecting the environment. In the United States, we have plenty of policies dealing with these goals, but responsibility for them is fragmented among multiple agencies, each with its own political leadership, constituency, and policy agenda. Each competes with the others for mandates and funding. And each attracts its own dedicated horde of stakeholder lobbyists.
A list is all you need to understand why current policies seem at cross purposes. I can think of 11 distinct categories of policies for agriculture, food, and nutrition. The USDA is in charge of most of them, but not all, and some of its functions overlap with those of other agencies. I realize that a table oversimplifies this situation, but I think it’s the easiest way to get a quick overview. See if you agree.
The explanation for a system this complicated is history—and politics, of course. The policies developed piecemeal, mostly during the twentieth century, in response to specific problems as they arose. Regulatory authority was assigned to whichever agency seemed most appropriate at the time. For some policy areas, oversight is split among several agencies—the antithesis of a systems approach.
U.S. Policy Areas Dealing with Agriculture, Food, and Nutrition
|POLICY AREA||MANDATE||OVERSIGHT AGENCY (OR AGENCIES)|
|Agricultural support||Payments to producers based on congressional farm bill legislation||USDA|
|Alcoholic beverages||Regulation of production, imports, labels, advertising||TTB|
|Environmental impact of food production and consumption||Standards for protecting quality of soil, water, and air; farmland conservation||USDA, EPA|
|Food and nutrition monitoring||Food quantity and quality, dietary intake, and effects of diets on health||USDA, CDC|
|Food and nutrition research||Studies of agriculture, food, nutrition, and health||NIH, USDA, FDA, CDC|
|Food assistance||Nutritional support for low-income adults and children through programs such as SNAP, WIC, and school meals||USDA|
|Food labor||Regulation of working conditions for farm, slaughterhouse, and restaurant employees||U.S. Department of Labor (wages, working conditions, child labor, migrant and seasonal workers); USDA (surveys, statistics); OSHA (worker safety and health)|
|Food product regulation||Package contents, labels, health claims, advertising||USDA (meat and poultry); FDA (all other foods, supplements); FTC (advertising)|
|Nutrition education||Dietary Guidelines for Americans; MyPlate food guide||USDA and HHS (guidelines); USDA (MyPlate)|
|Food safety||Procedures, inspections, enforcement||USDA (meat and poultry); FDA (all other foods)|
|Food trade||Quality and safety standards for agricultural crop, food product, ingredient, and supplement imports and exports||USDA, FDA, and 20 other federal agencies|
What a mess. The USDA, historically and by law a dedicated supporter of corporate industrial food production—Big Agriculture, Big Meat, Big Dairy—is also responsible for dietary guidelines and food guides that sometimes advise the public to eat less of what these enterprises produce.
How to clean up this mess? I like to tell the story of my disheartening experience teaching a course on the farm bill, the enormous and enormously complicated legislation that governs agricultural supports and food assistance in the United States. I didn’t know much about the bill when I decided to teach this course but could think of no better way to learn about it (hubris!). The high point came on the first day of class. I asked students to consider what a rational food policy might look like. They had no trouble coming up with desirable goals: make sure everyone has enough to eat at an affordable price; ensure a decent living for farmers; provide an adequate and safe livelihood for farm, restaurant, and slaughterhouse workers; protect farmers against the hazards of weather, pests, volatile markets, and climate change; produce a surplus for international trade and aid; and, most critically, promote health and protect the environment. On this last point, they thought the farm bill should encourage regional, seasonal, organic, and sustainable food production; promote conservation of soil, land, and forests; protect water and air quality, natural resources, and wildlife; and stipulate that farm animals be raised humanely.
OK, it’s a long list, but policies addressing such matters already exist. They just need to be refocused on health and environmental goals, and agencies need to work together to achieve them. The difficulty of making this happen, alas, is again best illustrated by the Government Accountability Office’s 40-year campaign for a single food safety agency.
In 2015, food journalists Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, along with food policy leaders Ricardo Salvador and Olivier De Schutter, called for an overall national food policy that would directly link food production and consumption to public health and environmental protection. Given political realities, they did not recommend creation of a single agency to oversee the entire food system, but they came close. They suggested reconfiguring the USDA to become the U.S. Department of Food, Health, and Wellbeing, and appointing a National Food Policy Advisor to coordinate food policies across all government departments.
In my book Safe Food, I included the wildly complex organizational chart of the then–newly formed Department of Homeland Security, an entity cobbled together from about four dozen federal agencies. A single food agency would be much less complicated, but evidently less politically feasible. As for a National Food Policy Advisor? I want that job!
Running down the table, I’d make sure agricultural policies promote health and protect the environment. I’d make alcohol labels consistent with food labels, and stop booze companies from aiming their marketing at low-income and minority groups. I’d insist that environmental policies do what they are supposed to do, that federal agencies diligently track how we produce and consume food and the effects of both on our health, and that research agencies sponsor studies of how our food system can best be configured to promote regenerative (sustainable, replenishing, carbon-sequestering) agricultural practices, as well as human and animal health. I’d insist that food assistance policies make adequate, healthy diets accessible for all participants.
I would correct decades of exploitation of farm and restaurant workers who still suffer the effects of racist 1930s legislation excluding them from minimal wage requirements and protections. I’d ensure that they are compensated fairly and have safe working conditions. For those who are undocumented, I would insist on legal protections and a route to legal status.
I’d get rid of misleading health claims and obfuscating labels on food products and do for food packages what Chile and some other Latin American countries have done: put warning labels on ultra-processed foods and ban cartoons from junk foods marketed to kids. I’d demand that food companies take safety seriously and do more to prevent foodborne illness. I would see to it that we import healthy, sustainably produced foods, and export high-quality products. Completing the list, I’d make sure that dietary guidelines and food guides promote vegetables and discourage ultra-processed products, and say so explicitly. Above all, I would consider agriculture, health, labor, and environmental policies as a unit, and never deal with them in isolation. That’s a food-systems approach in a nutshell.
Reasonable? I think so. Possible? I would dearly love to see all this as an agenda for action. Whether or not such policy goals are currently feasible, they are well worth setting. We need clear objectives for improving tomorrow’s food system as a means to guide—and inspire—today’s advocacy agenda.