What Is Food For, Anyway?
Four food-related policies that can improve our health and food supply
Thanks for visiting The Bittman Project, a place where food is everything (or pretty close).
Sometimes I think that enough been written and said about the indisputable costs of our style of agriculture and the resulting damage: diabetes, heart disease, and cancer; the increased susceptibility to complications from Covid; the resource depletion, greenhouse gas generation, poisoning of air, water, and land; the torture of animals and the alienation from other species and even the land itself; the exploitation of workers, the unequal access to that good food we do manage to produce (less than half of the total); the international export of The American Way of Food and its associated impact on all of the above.
The federal government acknowledges little of this. For more than 150 years, the Department of Agriculture, founded to harness the political and economic power that comes with being an agricultural behemoth, has determined that industrialization and commodification, the business of food, would come first. The well-being of farmers has been a distant and incidental priority. As for the rest of us: We take what the market gives us. Farming to maximize healthy food for humans, or minimizing damage to the land and other creatures, have never been guiding principles -- and they should have been all along.
It should be easy to reframe our priorities, starting with articulating what food is for. The answer is simple: Food is to nourish people, fairly and equitably, while respecting the people who provide it, and the land and other resources from which it comes.
Fixing our wrongs would start with acting consciously. As a nation, we could say that nutritious, affordable, and green food is everyone’s right, and we do not. Until recently, hunger, malnutrition, and famine were inevitable; now they are not. Until recently, we did not know the true cost of increasing yield at the expense of resources and health; now they are obvious. Until recently, we did not know which aspects of food promoted health and which promoted disease; now we do. Until now, many of our food-related problems could be chalked up to ignorance; that’s no longer an excuse.
An objective newcomer could observe that when it comes to agriculture, food-processing, and marketing, we’ve prioritized maximizing profits. We’ve implemented inadequate regulations that are often ignored. And we’ve abandoned guiding principles that would mitigate harmful impact on humans, other species, and the earth. After all, we, as a nation, could be saying that “nutritious, affordable, and green food is right of all,” and we do not.
Of course, the problems are even more fundamental: Our economy currently allows, even encourages, the few to thrive at the expense of the many. Quote all the Churchill (“The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings.”) and Thatcher (“There is no alternative.”) you want. Encouraging inequality is a deplorable notion.
You might be saying, “I thought we were talking about food.” We are: Food, like climate, like wealth, like the environment, raises all the important issues, and it’s as good a tool for grappling with those issues as anything else. If we can’t sustainably and reliably provide ourselves with good food, we’re looking at a future of increasing illness and planetary degradation. The challenges are great, but the costs of not meeting them are inconceivable. Step-by-step, we must upgrade the food system. By committing to this, we upgrade everyone’s quality of life.
We could start this in any number of ways. Since ideas are cheap, it’s best to first consider those that combine meaningful impact with their likelihood of actually happening. I could say “Free, high-quality food for all,” and get laughed off this page. I could scale back: “Let’s end monoculture,” but we’re not in any position to do that or even have that conversation. Even “Mandate that 20 percent of food be organic,” in an era of Michelob Ultra Organic Hard Seltzer and other abominations, is not likely to be super meaningful.
Let me put forward several achievable goals that would allow us to establish a food system that is on its way to becoming more green and just.
Restrict the sale of junk food to children, an idea that was humming along until Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. We could also tax junk food (beginning with soda) and use the income to subsidize fruits and vegetables.
Eliminate the routine use of antibiotics in raising animals, and institute real and enforceable regulations governing factory “farms” (they’re really animal factories) while enhancing transparency. The extent to which animals’ lives are discounted is hidden from most Americans, who would be horrified and ashamed if they saw what happens in large-scale “barns.” Enforcing existing environmental laws would help here as well, as these factories are egregious polluters.
Fix tipped-wage and other racist and sexist wage laws. Five of the worst paying jobs in the United States are in the food system. Much of this problem is due to New Deal-era laws designed to keep women, immigrants, Blacks, and people of color in general in their places. The federal tipped wage law, for example, allows for a minimum wage of $2.13 per hour for employees who earn more than $30 per month in tips. (Employers are supposed to make up the difference between actual earnings and the “real” minimum wage, but that practice is routinely ignored.) The $15 minimum wage for all would go a long way here.
Clean up agriculture’s impact on the environment. As long as the biggest farmers take billions of dollars in aid from the government each year, we — the tax-paying public — can justifiably expect them to farm in ways that build soil, protect water and air, and mitigate climate change.
All of this is possible —if not “easy”—and determining how to make progress is becoming more clear. The biggest changes require Congress — which gives us a reason to pressure representatives who exhibit sensible behavior and replace those who don’t. We’ll know we’ve begun to make real progress when food and the consequences of producing it are taken seriously.