Influencing Policy to Transform Food Systems

Oct 19, 2020Global Health, Perspectives, Strategy, US Health

The food system we have is not the result of the free market…No, our food system is the product of agricultural and antitrust policies—political choices—that, as has suddenly become plain, stand in urgent need of reform.[1]

This is how Michael Pollan, American author and academic best known for his explorations of the socio-cultural impacts of food, concludes an article underscoring how Covid-19 has exacerbated the inherent vulnerabilities and inequities of our modern food system. Adding to the discussion, a recent paper published in the Journal of Peasant Studies provides a detailed history of how we came to inherit this food system, by outlining 70 years of policy choices focused on improving efficiency in response to previous food system crises. In the 1960-70s, efficiency was pursued through industrial production methods, then in the 1980-90s it was pursued through specialization and trade, and the last two decades have pursued efficiency through corporate dominated supply chains.[2] Consistent and compounding policy responses have led to a vulnerable food system that lacks resilience and has traded economic equity, human dignity, human health, and environmental preservation in pursuit of efficiency and concentrated profit. Recognizing this, the time has come for us to force the choices that will put us back on a path to a just, nutritious, and sustainable food system.

First, let’s talk about the current realities of the food system. Then, let’s explore theories for food system transformation. Finally, let’s think about what we can do to help keep our people and our planet alive and well.

Lest we forget one of the hot topics during the early months of this pandemic, Covid-19 exposed to mainstream media the ineffective, inhumane, and highly inequitable nature of our food system.[3] Taking each of those in turn:

If we focus on ineffectiveness, we remember how dumbfounding it was to watch as our food system forced farmers to dump hundreds of gallons of unsold milk and euthanize their livestock on one end, but was unable to accommodate food banks’ ever-growing lines of hungry families suddenly unemployed by the economic shutdown on the other end.[4] A food system built for efficiency has rendered it ineffective except under perfect conditions.

However, while our food system is ineffective at getting food to those who need it, it is effective at accelerating the spread of disease – a distressing reality to confront while we sit amidst a global pandemic. Old and new research has surfaced on how the food system quickly spreads infectious disease – since 1940, agricultural drivers were associated with more than 25% of all diseases, and greater than 50% of infectious diseases caused by germs that spread between animals and people.[5],[6] That said, food system transformation will greatly improve our chances of avoiding the economic and personal pains of rampant disease in the future.  

If we continue examining the food system from the angles of inhumanity and inequity, we remember how food system workers – often workers of color – such as food processing workers and migrant farm labor, continued to face increased illness and death as government mandates kept meatpacking facilities open and restricted labor protections.[7],[8] For many of these same workers and their families, symptoms of Covid-19 were exacerbated by chronic diet-related health illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension that continue to disproportionately afflict low-income communities and communities of color.[9] The food systems’ laser focus on lucrative outputs such as grains, meat, and dairy have long left low-income communities – again, many of color – able only to afford foods that do not fully nourish human bodies. These socio-economic realities (indisputably linked to racial realities) continue to play out in a food system that places more emphasis on profit and efficiency than on nourishment and equity.

Although the news has shifted to the latest-breaking stories, the blatant vulnerabilities and gross inequities exposed in our modern food system remain rampant. This alone provides increasing evidence for and recognition of the longstanding consensus that a concerted transition to smaller, local food systems with increased resilience, distribution of power, equitable access, and diversification of output is a necessary and pressing matter of public policy.[10],[11]

While the consolidation of global supply chains in the industrialized food system made things cheaper and more efficient, the streamlined processes collapse like a long chain of dominos in the event of the smallest of disruption. Smaller systems, on the other hand, can pivot and adapt to changing environments.[12] Their localized nature also means disease does not spread as quickly or as ubiquitously as a germ hitching a ride on the Global Industrialized Food System Express. And finally, although current political choices have created an environment that incentivizes and ensures concentrated power to produce problematic outputs, if power were shifted to local communities, they could make choices that sustain, strengthen and protect their communities with adequate worker rights and appropriate health foods.

Despite consensus on the solution, there is little agreement as to what choices we should make to feasibly arrive there, and who should make those choices. Given what we know about where power lies and given that lobbyists, lawyers, large profit margins, and consumer access might not be on the side of localized food systems for a long time, what can realistically be done?

While several theories of change exist, for each theory of change advocate, there are just as many critics.

First, to those who believe writing concrete scientific reports and telling compelling stories will shift beliefs and behaviors enough to shift policy incentives and consumer preferences, there are those who are not as convinced. While science and storytelling are important, looking to the climate movement as an example, we see evidence it doesn’t matter what is said and known generally, but rather what people in positions of political and financial power proclaim. Much like the climate movement, policy for a new food economy would be expensive, and has few short or medium returns. If communities and politicians fear immediate economic loss or political unpopularity more than they fear future scientific certainty, starting such a politically and emotionally charged conversation with scientific facts is useless.

Second, to those who advocate for solving this issue from a different angle, in which powerful food industry actors themselves transition business models towards sustainability, critics similarly say that as long as policies provide them incentives to operate as they always have, and insurance allows them to write off their losses from operating in such a way, it’s too risky – foolish even – to transition away from the status quo.

Third: What if people vote with their fork until consumer demand out-competes business as usual? Enter critiques: only those who both care about long-term health and sustainability and also have the purchasing power to make choices in line with their beliefs can vote with their fork. That specific consumer segment is not large enough to create system-wide change alone, and even if it were, the process would leave behind the very people we were demanding change for in the first place, given the high prices of food. Chronic lack of purchasing power and access is the reason why America’s dollar stores are able to sell more food nationally than Whole Foods.[13] Besides, for the industries that have decided to cater to this relatively small consumer base by flooding the market with “better for you” brands and fast-casual restaurants, the pandemic seeks to prove you can’t beat capitalism at its own game: in this new normal, the first foods to go are the ones with the most preservatives and longest shelf lives, and the fast food chains have been surviving much better than local restaurants.[14],[15]

It has been made clear that systemic issues rarely have perfect solutions and come with many more questions than answers. Urgency is imperative, but negligence can be deadly. In a world where health is a function of privilege rather than a human right, where excess supply is unable to meet excess demand, and where the land that provides us with our food is treated as poorly as the person working the land, it is time to demand policy change.

Thankfully, policy is much more than the work of politicians. While responsibilities and distribution of power are uneven, the responsibility to change policy is not on politicians alone, nor does the power lie exclusively with them. We as individuals have varying levels of power and privilege we are responsible for using to influence, inform, and initiate change. To change policy, we can do at least two things:

We can gain and share knowledge. Paramount to affecting policy is the interminable work of gaining and sharing knowledge from and with different times, peoples, and places. A well-rounded understanding of the challenges and opportunities can start with having a conversation with a friend, or watching a documentary on Netflix, or even typing a relevant question into the Google search bar. In parallel, it is important to critically analyze any knowledge in order to understand the relationships it has with yourself, the source sharing the knowledge, and the system the knowledge belongs to. For example, does the knowledge reveal anything about your own role in perpetuating the status quo and preventing change, or perhaps opportunities to affect change, based on lived experience, history, or privileges? Who is sharing the knowledge and why them?

We can exercise our right to engage in policy advocacy and voting processes. In a moment in history when political activism is so high, we all know how important it can be to add one’s voice to national elections. However, our voice can be used in local elections, or in any democratic process any organization or community you are involved with might have, too. Register to vote. Find out what decisions are on the table by searching candidates on the internet or emailing the head of the organization you are involved with. Vote for or defend the position that will likely not be perfect, but will bring us away from the status quo of repeated attempts to place efficiency above all.

Morality has been pitted against politics and profit, but such battles have been won before (take the tobacco industry, for example).[16] There is hope in the fact that we got to where we are based on policy, and so we can get ourselves out the same way.

[1] Michael Pollan (2020) “The Sickness in Our Food Supply,” The New York Review of Books

[2] Jennifer Clapp & William G. Moseley (2020) “This food crisis is different: COVID-19 and the fragility of the neoliberal food security order,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2020.1823838

[3] Caleb Pershan (2020) “It’s still the Jungle Out There,” Eater

[4] Tyler Whitley (2020) “Op-ed: Don’t Blame Farmers Who Have to Euthanize Their Animals. Blame the Companies They Work For,” Civil Eats

[5] Albie Miles, Kathleen Merrigan (2020) “If We Get Food Right, We Get Everything Right.” Honolulu Civil Beat

[6] Laura Spinney (2020) “We Need to Rethink Our Food System to Prevent the Next Pandemic,” Time Magazine

[7] Andrew Restuccia & Jacob Bunge (2020) “Trump Takes Executive Action to Keep Meat-Processing Plants Open,” The Wall Street Journal

[8] N.a. (2020) “Impact of COVID-19 on people’s livelihoods, their health and our food systems,” Joint statement by ILO, FAO, IFAD and WHO

[9] Pollan (2020) “The Sickness in Our Food Supply”  

[10] Chloe Sorvino (2020) “Going Local: The Case For Bringing America’s Meat Supply Closer To Home,” Forbes

[11] Clapp & Moseley (2020) “This food crisis is different”

[12] Sarah Sax, (2020) “A Vietnamese Farmers’ Cooperative in New Orleans Offers a Lesson in Resilience,” Civil Eats

[13] Elly Truesdell (2020) “Grocery Wars: A Natural Foods Reckoning,” Food + Tech Connect              

[14] Ibid.

[15] Cathy Erway (2020) “What Happens When the Only Restaurants Left Are Chains?” Grub Street

[16] Paul Verkuil (1998) “A Leadership Case Study of Tobacco and its Regulation,” Public Talk: The Online Journal of Discourse Leadership