Vroom: Chewing on the Politics of Food

Posted July 2, 2010 at 10:16am

There’s an old adage that most Americans are introduced to politics at the family dinner table. It’s still true today, but not just because of the conversations taking place. It’s because food has become political. Accordingly, politics and public policy are shaping the staggering number of choices that affect production, distribution and the decision-making processes of the food we buy and eat. One could argue that each consumer’s final choices of what he or she consumes is so far down the line of decision-making that it is no real choice at all.

[IMGCAP(1)]For example, when it comes to global agriculture there are thousands of farmers and scores of companies around the world deciding daily how to deal with the scourge of weeds, pests and fungus. When a new strain of fungus was discovered in Africa and scientists immediately warned of a threat to global wheat supplies, farmers and companies went to work to develop resistant wheat varieties. That’s the good news considering the fungus, UG99, was reportedly traveling almost 100 miles in a day and had destroyed about 80 percent of the wheat crop in Kenya over several years.

When it comes to school lunches, politicians in Washington, D.C., are constantly looking at ways to deal with serious health and nutrition concerns. To that end, a bill under consideration — the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act — directs the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set new nutrition standards for all food served in schools, effectively removing junk food from vending machines.

The decisions in these instances and others like them have significant consequences and should help brighten the spotlight on American farmers, food production and the multiple thousands of steps that take place to deliver each piece of food to our local supermarket shelves and, ultimately, into our homes.

Given the vital role that food plays in our lives, Time magazine recently included in its 100 Most Influential People list two people directly linked to food, including author Michael Pollan. However, if one was to remove the pop culture-infused talents on such a list and focus more on individuals who are shaping our society at the most basic level, you’d have the names of many more academicians and food and plant scientists such as Norman Borlaug, and the life-changing work his granddaughter, Julie Borlaug Larson, is doing at Texas A&M’s Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture.

As the CEO of CropLife America, the trade association that supports safe and affordable food and fiber production through innovative, safe and environmentally sound crop protection technologies, I am confronted with these issues all year long. We have a team of professionals, among the best in the business, who are focused on creating the best solutions to overcome the many obstacles and challenges confronting the future progress of today’s agriculture.

Consider these challenges from our point of view; never have farmers been expected to accomplish so much. They must find ways to double agriculture output to feed a world expected to grow from 6 billion people today to 9 billion people by 2050 — the equivalent of feeding two more Chinas. And they need to do it while making the most of every available acre of land and drop of fresh water.

Against these challenges, we advance an agenda of innovation, safety and sustainability. If we do it well, we help farmers produce more crops, protect public health and conserve precious natural resources. We measure success when the public policy environment enables farmers to do what they do best.

So, in a city where long-term policy thinking almost always takes a back seat to reaction, and where like-minded coalitions can become entrenched, we are polishing an agenda for our first National Policy Conference, where we will engage voices from every wrinkle in the food debate. Our goal is to host a conference where leading experts in the fields of agriculture, food safety and security will offer diverse perspectives and engage in frank discussions on all issues facing modern agriculture. We’ll discuss the role of technology in food production, the quest to use fewer natural resources and the barriers to and opportunities for progress and innovation. What will result, we hope, is a foundational discussion of the ethics behind who decides agriculture policy.

We know that the politics of food and agriculture plays a significant role in Americans’ lives, from the farmer’s field to our kitchen tables, and for the jobs and exports that support our economy. We know we can bring some sunlight to these discussions, and starting now, we know an honest, constructive debate can have a positive effect on legislation leading up to and including the 2012 farm bill.

Jay Vroom is president and CEO of CropLife America.