When I moved to the UK in 2005, I was impressed by the general recognition of food as a political issue. Seasonal eating was de rigeur on gastropub menus, ‘food miles’ was a phrase I’d hear on nightly newscasts, and I think something like 50% of the population knew what the Fairtrade mark was. I thought that was all pretty neat, and way ahead of American understanding of such concepts even after Fast Food Nation and ‘Supersize Me’ had come out. Even now the biggest names in the national movements towards rational eating – say, Jamie Oliver and Michael Pollan – are miles apart in terms of celebrity and name recognition.
But while Jame Oliver is exhorting the British public to pay more attention to what it feeds itself, Michael Pollan is calling on the US government to re-examine our entire national agricultural system. And the progressive foodie movement is gaining traction – Pollan’s had a few books on the bestseller lists, and Obama even referenced his article in the NY Times Magazine during the campaign. In November California voters passed a proposition banning certain types of animal confinement by a healthy margin, and this week Nick Kristof argued that we should rename the Department of Agriculture the Department of Food.
The US has a lot of food issues, to be sure. For starters, it probably isn’t very healthy that we refer to the food grown for human consumption as “specialty crops.” And surely the move towards rational eating in the US has not sparked the same level of public awareness as in the UK. But by targeting the root (or a root at least) of the problem – government policies – the US has a chance to make a critical and lasting impact to the way we eat. And by extension, to address a range of economic, environmental, public health and international trade issues that are all tied to it.
This petition for a sustainable Dept of Agriculture has nearly 40,000 signatures. That’s a start.