Why the Next President Will Need a National Food Policy

By Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador, Olivier De Schutter

Last November, we published an op-ed article in the Washington Post calling on the president to establish a National Food Policy (NFP). Given that the production and consumption of food has a bigger impact on Americans’ well-being than any other human activity, our premise was that it deserved the same attention as such well-established federal policy areas as national security, the environment, education, or healthcare. Yet, despite its increasingly evident importance to the health of our people and our environment, the U.S. has no NFP — no plan or agreed-upon set of principles — for managing American agriculture or the food system as a whole.

Rather than attempt to lay out the specifics of an NFP, we set forth some broad principles that we felt should guide its development, principles around which we hoped the larger food movement could coalesce. We wrote that an NFP should reorganize the resources of government to guarantee that:

  • All Americans have access to healthful food;
  • Farm policies are designed to support our public health and environmental objectives;
  • Our food supply is free of toxic bacteria, chemicals, and drugs;
  • Production and marketing of our food are done transparently;
  • The food industry pays a fair wage to those it employs;
  • Food marketing sets children up for healthful lives by instilling in them a habit of eating real food;
  • Animals are treated with compassion and attention to their well-being;
  • The food system’s carbon footprint is reduced, and the amount of carbon sequestered on farmland is increased;
  • The food system is sufficiently resilient to withstand the effects of climate change.

These goals are anything but controversial. Yet weigh them against the reality that our current policies and public investments have given us:

Because of unhealthy diets, 100 years of progress in improving public health and extending lifespan has been reversed. Today’s children are expected to live shorter lives than their parents. In large part, this is because a third of these children will develop Type 2 diabetes, formerly rare in children and a preventable disease that reduces life expectancy by several years. At the same time, our fossil fuel-dependent food and agriculture system is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector of the economy but energy. And the exploitative labor practices of the farming and fast-food industries are responsible for much of the rise in income inequality in America.

We find ourselves in this situation because government policy in these areas is made piecemeal. Diet-related chronic disease, food safety, marketing to children, labor conditions, wages for farm and food-chain workers, immigration, water and air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, and support for farmers: These issues are all connected to the food system. Yet they are overseen by eight different federal agencies. Amid this incoherence, special interests thrive and the public good suffers.

Of course, reforming the food system will ultimately depend on a Congress that has for decades been beholden to agribusiness, one of the most powerful lobbies on Capitol Hill. As long as food-related issues are treated as discrete rather than systemic problems, congressional committees in thrall to special interests will be able to block change.

But there is something the next president can do to break that deadlock: In the first State of the Union address, announce an executive order establishing a national policy for food, health, and well-being. By officially acknowledging the problem and by setting forth a few simple principles on which most Americans agree, the introduction of such a policy would create momentum for reform. By elevating food and farming to a matter of public concern rather than a parochial interest, the president can make it much more difficult for the interests of agribusiness to prevail over those of public and environmental health.

The NFP should be developed and implemented by a new White House council, which would coordinate among, say, the Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA to align agricultural policies with public health objectives, and the EPA and the USDA to make sure food production doesn’t undermine environmental goals. An NFP would lay the foundation for a food system in which healthful choices are accessible to all and it becomes possible to nourish ourselves without exploiting other people or nature.

Our call for a National Food Policy achieved its initial objective. It elevated the issue and galvanized thousands of people to sign onto the principles and petition the White House. A broad range of individuals and groups representing every element of the Food Movement — from labor to animal welfare, from sustainable agriculture to public health, from food security to farmland preservation and child nutrition, etc. — joined the call for an NFP.

So what’s the next step?

Actually, there are two next steps. The first is to call on all candidates running for the presidency to put forth their own NFP. In the same way it is now routine for all candidates running for office to outline their policies on defense, education, the environment, taxation, gun control, etc., it should be routine for them to outline their policies for the food system, since its impact on our health and well-being is at least as profound as all those other policy areas.

Second, the time has come to begin filling in some of the detail of what a progressive food policy should look like when the next president takes office, and to begin specifying the levers of power available to implement such a policy. This is what the following memo, addressed to the next president, endeavors to do. It is by no means complete or comprehensive. Rather it is meant to advance a conversation, both among the public and among those of us active in food system reform. We encourage you to join that conversation and add to the document, bringing imaginative new proposals that will help galvanize food as a political issue, elevating it to its rightful place among the topics we need to address in the upcoming political year.


Photographs by Elizabeth Renstrom. Animations by LAZY MOM.


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Why We Need a National Food Policy

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A National Food Policy for the 21st Century


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