When ducks go lame

by Robbin S. Johnson
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Barack Obama
The post-election “lame duck” session could be an opportunity for some constructive legislative actions.

KANSAS CITY — This article needs to be submitted one week ahead of the 2016 elections, which will bring to a close the most bizarre and fractious presidential campaign in my lifetime. Facing a polarized electorate, both candidates migrated toward their respective political extremes, leaving a vacuum in the middle. Yet, some pundits have suggested that the post-election “lame duck” session could be an opportunity for some constructive legislative actions, especially on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Perhaps, but it is difficult to see how the venom and ad hominem attacks can be put to bed so quickly. Nor does it seem that any political leaders are rushing to fill the vacuum in the political center. Trade and farm policy historically have lived in that bipartisan neighborhood. Only time will tell if there is enough political oxygen there to support life once again.

So, rather than conjecture that the unimaginable could happen and the nation witness a productive lame-duck session, I would like to focus on some broader trends. What they suggest for the agricultural community is a continuing shift in focus from farm to food policy.

Food issues vs. farm policy

For example, my first two years’ worth of bi-monthly essays were devoted exclusively to farm policy. Some of that was because a farm bill was being written in that 2007-08 period. But we have had another farm bill since then, but only three widely spaced articles discussed the commodity provisions of farm legislation. What has nudged them aside? The answer is food issues, in three or four forms. One is food security, the fundamental need to ensure access for all to the foodstuffs necessary for a healthy, active life.

A second focus has been nutrition policy, ranging from the nutrition title of the 2012 farm bill to the more general intersection of food and health issues. In that connection, it should be noted that there has been significant scientific consensus around the healthfulness of the food supplies from conventional agriculture. For example, a May 2016 report jointly issued by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) and the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Panel of Experts on Pesticide Residues concluded that three common agricultural chemicals — diazinon, glyphosate and malathion — were “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet.”

There also are growing controversies around the public health community’s general dietary advice, much of which has been based on epidemiological studies that have not been reproducible in clinical trials. As a result, two generations of Americans have been avoiding saturated fats and cholesterol while eating more carbohydrate-rich diets that now appear to be an important cause of the increased risks of obesity, diabetes and heart disease that developed over the last half of the 20th century.

A third focus has been increased consumer demand for information about the food they eat and how it has been produced, processed and marketed. In particular, there have been intensifying dialogues around labeling, with “clean label” and “non-G.M.O.” demands forcing food manufacturers to re-formulate their products.

Given the poor track record of food advice from the public health community, it is not surprising that more consumers want to make their own judgments. Yet it is far from clear that those judgments are any better — or better-informed — than prior to these developments. Finding a pathway for sound science in this nutritional landscape remains a lively topic.

Examining the food system

Another area of growing interest might best be described as: how does the U.S. food system work? Beyond the nutritional issues noted above, this focal point includes agriculture’s interactions with the environment (e.g., pollution, climate change), global trade (e.g., regional and multilateral trade agreements) and foreign policy (e.g., food aid, biofuels and food sanctions). These systemic issues not only tend to crowd out traditional commodity-policy considerations but also to diminish the role of farm organizations in the policymaking process.

Perhaps a better way of putting this shift in emphasis is to say that U.S. agriculture over the past decade has become less commodity-policy-driven and more customer-driven. In many ways, this is a positive development, playing to the strengths and flexibility of a market-based U.S. food system. It also, however, increases the complexity and variability of the forces shaping that system. The food needs of globally poor and working-class households are vastly different from the tastes and preferences of the well-off.

The same may be said of the environmental costs and benefits of traditional, conventional and artisanal agricultural systems. And U.S. agriculture’s global role and ambitions increasingly are dependent on shifting policies and attitudes toward globalization generally.

Thinking through all of these forces of change, it is understandable why commodity policy counts for less and food policy counts for more in U.S. agriculture’s future. Little that happens in the pending lame-duck session is likely to change that.

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