Columnist, Food

I have a theory. It’s a theory about why we’re having such a misguided, unconstructive discussion about several hot-button food-related issues, GMOs first among them.

It begins with the premise that our food supply has some very big problems. Although any reasonable person acknowledges the things we do well — our farms are highly productive, our food is extremely safe — it’s easy, also, to see where we’ve gone wrong. Our agriculture has contributed to water-quality problems and soil erosion, among other issues. And our food supply is hard for us to navigate without getting fat; two-thirds of us are overweight or obese. We eat a lot of processed food and not a lot of produce. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 13 percent of us eat enough fruit, and 9 percent eat enough vegetables.

Pretty much everybody I’ve talked with concedes that there are problems. But it’s hard to find a villain. A complex set of interacting players and factors drives these problems, and solutions tend to be commensurately complex. Genetically modified organisms, I think, are often a proxy for the very big, very real problems in our agriculture and food supply. One reason we can’t get past them is that, although GMO advocates point out, early and often, that GMOs aren’t the problem (and I believe they’re right), they seldom go on to say exactly what the problem is (and I believe they’re remiss). 

So I figured I should ask. I went to a whole host of smart, thoughtful people holding varying positions on GMOs and asked one simple question: Leaving aside GMOs for the moment, what’s the problem with our food? How, in other words, should we go about fixing our food system, from the ground up? 

Here is a necessarily distilled version of what they told me. Next month, I’ll synthesize their suggestions, along with those of other people I’ve spoken with over the past two years and a few ideas of my own, into a grand plan to fix our food system. I know you’re on the edge of your seat!

 


U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack: ”There’s an effort on the part of many people to use food policy as a dividing issue. . . . Food should be uniting.” (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture

Fittingly, he begins by pointing to two programs the Department of Agriculture has already implemented. One gives farmers — particularly small and medium-size operations — options other than large-farm style commodity crops. Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food helps them enter markets — local, regional, organic — where more of the food dollar goes to the farmer.

The second, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, encourages multiple conservation practices on farmland, to mitigate problems with soil condition and water quality. 

The USDA, says Vilsack, doesn’t focus exclusively on farmers. More-healthful school meals are a priority, as is helping families who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program assistance (SNAP, or food stamps) so they can “incorporate healthier choices in tight family budgets with more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and multiple protein sources.” 

What frustrates Vilsack is that “there’s an effort on the part of many people to use food policy as a dividing issue. Red, blue. Organic, conventional. Foodie, traditional. I’m fed up with having divisive conversations.”  

There are some uniting issues, he notes. Conservation is a goal for everyone involved in agriculture, as is adaptation to climate change. We all want to reduce food waste. And no one wants children to go to bed hungry.

Vilsack wants to find more common ground: “Food should be uniting.”


Dan Glickman, senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center: We have to bring different people from different worlds together. Producers, processors, retailers, consumers: That dialogue has not occurred very much.” (Kate Patterson/For The Washington Post)

Dan Glickman, senior fellow, Bipartisan Policy Center

Glickman, who was secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration, starts by quoting H.L. Mencken’s famous dictum that for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong. “There is no silver bullet,” he says. But there is “silver buckshot,” a wide range of initiatives that, together, can help. 

He lists a few that could help change consumer habits: “Maintain improvement in school meals. Make sure the Dietary Guidelines are scientifically based and have a health focus. Educate doctors and health-care professionals about prevention techniques, including nutrition.” He also suggests that the insurance industry write policies with incentives for people to take better care of themselves. 

On the production side, he wants to encourage crop diversity. “It’s a Field of Dreams,” he says. “If we grow it, they will buy it.” 

 Like Vilsack, Glickman would like to see more unity. “We have to bring different people from different worlds together,” he says. “Producers, processors, retailers, consumers: That dialogue has not occurred very much. People have to be talking to each other.”

 


American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman (left, with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack): “From an industry standpoint, we should do what we can to not disincentivize the production of healthier crops.” (American Farm Bureau Federation)

 Bob Stallman, president, American Farm Bureau Federation

“The complexity of society’s relationship with food is at the core of the problem,” says Stallman. “And there’s a tendency by society to blame. Some look at the food system.” To change consumer behavior, he says, start with education. “It’s a shame kids in schools aren’t taught basic nutrition.”

Stallman says the food system bears some responsibility. “From an industry standpoint, we should do what we can to not disincentivize the production of healthier crops.” When I ask whether that means he’d support a crop-neutral system, in which insurance premiums are subsidized to the same extent, no matter the crop, and commodity programs are eliminated, he says that “in theory, I think a crop-neutral risk management support system would be desirable.”

He also says farmers and ranchers have to be more engaged in the public debate: “We have to show up and have reasonable conversations in forums that we may not be most comfortable being in.” When people who aren’t involved in food production get together to talk about our food system, “most farmers and ranchers ask, ‘Who are these people, and why do I need to be there?’” he says. But it’s important to show up, because “it’s easy to trash someone when you’re not looking them in the eye.” 

 


Ricardo Salvador, food and environment program director for the Union of Concerned Scientists: “The government supports the businesses that produce the food that make us sick.” (Jeffrey MacMillan)

Ricardo Salvador, director, Food & Environment Program, Union of Concerned Scientists

 Salvador begins by talking about the sequence of people — seed developer, farmer, aggregator, manufacturer — who together produce food. “Everyone in the sequence is doing the best that they can within their niche. The aggregate outcome is that we’re exploiting people and nature, and producing the wrong things.” 

To fix it, “you don’t modify a system by tweaking a leverage point. You have to change its purpose.” And its purpose, according to Salvador, should be “public well-being,” which encompasses both human and environmental health. From there, we have to align incentives with that objective. “Right now, incentives are all about productivity, because at one time that was the limiting factor.”  

To change that, Salvador focuses on the political process, beginning with “a concerted campaign for the next president to see that food should be a high national priority. Every issue that candidates believe they have to address — climate, drought, immigration — is related to food.” 

The idea is that “government should invest in supporting the system it recommends that we eat. Instead, the data show the government supports the businesses that produce the food that make us sick. The free market can do whatever it wants, but the government shouldn’t be investing public resources in it.”


Chef-restaurateur and Food Policy Action co-founder Tom Colicchio: “I think people want to eat healthier food, but they can’t afford it.” (Kris Connor/Getty Images for Chef Action Net)

Tom Colicchio, chef/owner, Crafted Hospitality; co-founder, Food Policy Action

Colicchio starts with crop subsidies. “If you want to change behavior, there have to be incentives,” he says. “We are tying subsidies and crop insurance to conservation, but some of the standards need to be stronger.” He suggests, as an example, tying them to the amount of carbon sequestered in soil.

He’s also focused on helping farmers convert acreage to organic crops. “There are farmers who want to do it, but the three-year period [required for the transition] may not be a good business decision.” He floats the possibility of an affordable loan program, or “a futures market for organic,” to help with that.

On the consumer side, Colicchio focuses on affordability. “I think people want to eat healthier food, but they can’t afford it.” To make fruits and vegetables more affordable, Colicchio circles back to crop subsidies, which he’d like to see reflect MyPlate, the USDA nutrition guide that divides the plate into approximately four equal parts: fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins. He also wants to see programs like SNAP and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) keep their funding.

In schools, Colicchio would like to see a continued focus on more-healthful school lunches and more nutrition education. “Start at pre-K,” he says, “so kids know what healthy eating is.”

 


Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest: “Government and industry need to mount major, ongoing dietary-change campaigns promoting fruits, veggies — including beans — and whole grains.” (Chris Kleponis/Center for Science in the Public Interest)

Michael Jacobson, executive director, Center for Science in the Public Interest 

Jacobson pinpoints three improvements we should make: Drink fewer sugary drinks, eat less meat, and eat more fruits and vegetables. On the sugar front, he suggests soda taxes and FDA limits on the calorie content of drinks (and a warning notice on drinks that exceed the limits). On produce, he says “government and industry need to mount major, ongoing dietary-change campaigns promoting fruits, veggies — including beans — and whole grains.” He also favors giving SNAP recipients discounts on fruits and vegetables, but acknowledges that it’s “unrealistic” politically.

“A softer, longer approach,” he adds, “is to teach kids how to cook.” 

 


Laura Batcha, chief executive and executive director of the Organic Trade Association: “Crop diversity, habitat diversity, diversity in seed. Most everyone can agree that diverse systems are more resilient.” (Erika Nizborski/Organic Trade Association)

Laura Batcha, chief executive and executive director, Organic Trade Association

Batcha points to two issues: diversity and choice.

“Diversity is the obvious one,” she says. “Crop diversity, habitat diversity, diversity in seed. Most everyone can agree that diverse systems are more resilient.”

Our food landscape is driven by both markets and public policy, she notes. “We have to make sure that the government doesn’t have its hands on the scale toward one production system. It has to drive agriculture toward, not away from, diversity.”

She acknowledges that this is beginning to happen. “There have been [government] investments in local and regional food systems. There have been trends to diversify some. We see export support out of USDA slowly start to move away from exclusive support for large commodity exports.” 

Meanwhile, consumer preferences are also shaping our food supply. Batcha cites the many producers, processors and retailers who are responding to consumer pressure on issues such as cage-free eggs and antibiotic use in livestock. She expects that to continue.

Although Batcha represents the organic industry, she’s quick to say that organic is “not the only thing,” but should be one choice among many.

 


Monsanto chief executive Hugh Grant: “There’s more interest in agriculture than there’s ever been. When you think of the tiny fraction of those involved in growing food, and then the number involved in the debate about food, it’s an order of magnitude bigger.” (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

Hugh Grant, chief executive, Monsanto

One of Grant’s priorities is feeding a growing global population. What are the next 2 billion humans going to eat? “The U.S. is going to have a big part of feeding them,” he says, and notes the productivity of soybeans, “the cheapest, purest source of high-volume plant protein.” He acknowledges, though, that Americans don’t consume soy that way. (We feed it to animals and use the oil in food processing.)

About the question of how to fix our food system here at home, Grant says that “five years ago, I would have argued that we’re a seed company, what can we do?” But his view has changed, and he sees Monsanto as part of a chain that needs to be interacting. Trace a packaged food back, and it was “a Monsanto seed, grown by a farmer, aggregated by Cargill,” and so on to the grocery shelf.  

The players in that chain “don’t sit at the same table very often. You have to talk.” What they need to talk about, says Grant, is “how do you grow more, and how do you grow better? We have more, and better has suffered.”  

Dialogue also has to include people who aren’t in that chain. “There’s more interest in agriculture than there’s ever been,” Grant says. “When you think of the tiny fraction of those involved in growing food, and then the number involved in the debate about food, it’s an order of magnitude bigger.” But there’s a lot of “needless friction” in that debate. “It’s conventional versus organic, small versus large, slow versus local. It’s either/or, and the public spectacle of locking horns.” To improve our food supply, “we’re going to need every element of this.” 

Grant is optimistic (“despite being a Scotsman,” he says). “If there were total indifference, the chance of engagement would be much less. Collectively, we will figure this out.”

Haspel writes about food and science and farms oysters on Cape Cod. On Twitter: @TamarHaspel. She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.