Eat food.

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.


2 responses to “Eat food.

  1. Having recently moved to Canada from the UK, I have noticed a similar contrast in food awareness. The concepts of buying organic and local produce are clearly taking off, but, similar to the States, there seems to be no debate about GM foods, and little talk of buying more ethically reared meat products.

    Jamie Oliver gets a lot of cynical press, which I think is very unfair. In his position it would be easy for him to take the route of many of his fellow celebrity chefs and concentrate on highlight his own personality rather than putting his reputation on the line promoting healthy, ethical eating, even for the less well-off.

    North America could do with a few of its own celebrity chefs taking up the cudgels to promote better food awareness among a wider audience.

  2. Plenty of food/sust ag activists in the UK have targeted government policy – Jamie Oliver included. His school meals campaign contributed in part to a change in government policy. There are moves here in the UK to build National Food Policies – already underway in Scotland, less progress in England… something we’re yet to see any sign of from the USDA!
    I’m interested in the comparison between uk/us food activism – so far I’ve been working on food research in the uk, but will be re-locating to the US next year. I’ve assumed that the level of govt policy campaigning that goes on in the US is higher because corporate sway over the USDA is more entrenched than at DEFRA in this country. Interesting comparison though.

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