Why Aren’t Presidential Candidates Talking about Food and Agriculture?

, Fellow, Food & Environment Program | October 20, 2015, 12:03 pm EDT
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With the first Democratic debate a week behind us and the election still over a year away, we’ve entered a long but important window to influence campaign conversation.

In last week’s debate, the candidates spoke for 101 minutes during which gun control was mentioned 40 times. Russia and Syria followed in a tight second with 36 mentions, clocking in above the economy, which got called out 30 times. The health of Americans—or more specifically, healthcare—came up less than half as frequently, but still garnered 13 mentions.

How many times did the candidates mention food or agriculture?

Zero. Which is typical. (The Republicans are no better.)

Presidential candidates: Tell us how you plan to make the U.S. food system look more like this. Photo: Amelia Moore.

Presidential candidates: Tell us how you plan to make the U.S. food system look more like this. Photo: Amelia Moore.

Disillusioned as we may be by the thought of an entire year of campaign rhetoric looming, we must remember something very important about how campaigns work: The real reason no candidate mentioned food or agriculture last week isn’t necessarily because they are unwilling or unable to talk about it.

It’s because no one asked.

This isn’t to suggest that gun control isn’t a worthy topic for debate. In fact, with over 33,000 deaths from firearms every year, the growing crisis of gun violence is crippling and the need for effective policy solutions and reform in our policing and incarceration systems is dire.

But alongside a crisis of gun violence, we also have a crisis of diet-related diseases—and one of epidemic proportions. Every year, more than twice as many Americans die from diabetes than from guns, and nearly 20 times as many die from heart disease. Today’s children are the first generation of kids with a shorter life expectancy than their parents, which is no surprise when one in three children is now expected to develop Type 2 diabetes.

This noose of diet-related diseases hasn’t just appeared around the neck of Americans—it’s the consequence of a broken food system and the remnant of outdated policy choices. Our food system isn’t only broken for eaters. It’s broken for farmers, and it’s broken for workers across the food chain. Exploitation is rampant among food workers, who hold five of the eight worst-paying jobs in the country. Our farmers aren’t encouraged to do much to help. Instead, our policies encourage them to grow unsustainable amounts of unhealthy crops, and to do so at the expense of the long-term health of their land.

There is one glimmer of hope in all of this though, which is that an interest in the food system is now a mainstream issue with widespread support nationwide. In fact, a recent poll found that 94 percent of voters believed that a food system that promotes access to healthy food was very or somewhat important.

Voters also know that it’s not the reality: though almost half of those polled gave the country an A grade for food availability, only 14 percent scored the country this well when asked about affordability of food. (When asked specifically about affordability of healthy food the numbers were even lower).

An interest in food system reform is gaining traction with voters too. When offered a number of solutions for how to change the food system, almost half chose “make healthy food more affordable” as their top priority. In large numbers, voters expressed concern with the diet-related impacts of our food system, the influence of money in food and agriculture politics, and the disconnect between government recommendations and the policies behind them. What’s more is that these concerns crossed party lines, and the majority of polled voters on both sides of the aisle strongly favored government incentives to support sustainable farming practices, among other proposals.

So as we push our candidates to take a stand on gun control and foreign relations and economic growth, there’s something else we need to press them on: their plans to ensure access to affordable, healthy, safe food for Americans everywhere.

Collectively, we need to challenge candidates in both parties to not only say the words “food” and “agriculture”, but to offer concrete policy solutions for how they plan to address this broken system. We need to pressure candidates to talk not just about economic growth opportunities within the food system, but strategies to expand both access and affordability in all communities. We need to push them to support farmers who want to grow fruits and vegetables, and invest in research to advance sustainable farming practices. We need to hear them acknowledge the links between our food system and the growing environmental crisis perpetuated by unsustainable agricultural practices, and tell us what they plan to do to protect our planet along with our health.

Let’s take advantage of the next year to change the campaign conversation, and let’s remember that if we demand answers, we must first ask the questions.

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  • Marie Lynette Johnson

    When I read that line about gun control I got so upset I forgot to check whether the statement was made by Concerned Scientists or Cornucopia who reposted it.
    Nothing about guns is any different from any other tool. You do not speak of scissor violence as though it were a special kind. You don’t hear anyone say bat control or get hammers off the streets. We don’t hold glass bottle buybacks or pass laws restricting the use of fists. That last weapon would come too close to making us realize that we must control people who do violent things. Impossible.
    We like better controlling people who DON’T do bad things. Mark lines all over and say
    that it is dangerous, thus illegal, to color outside—oops, *carry* outside the line. Start arresting people who step off the curb — without first taking off the holster, unloading, putting the ammo and gun in two separate boxes and locking both boxes!!

  • FosterBoondoggle

    Candidates talk about what they think will matter to voters. Most voters are urban or suburban and have no involvement in agriculture except when they go to the supermarket. Most voters don’t care about buying healthy food, regardless of what they tell pollsters. That’s why they buy donuts, coke and doritos instead of seltzer, spinach and lentils. If a candidate runs on a platform of making coke more expensive and spinach cheaper, is that really going to win him/her votes?

    Sure, there are problems with agriculture. Pollution from CAFOs, runoff and erosion from midwest farms, overuse of groundwater in Kansas and California, etc. But also, nutritious food is more easily and cheaply available than ever before in my lifetime (which goes back 5 decades), so if people aren’t consuming it, it’s not because they can’t get it. And much as I like what Bittman stands for, calling the current system “broken” is absurdly hyperbolic. There are bad aspects and negative consequences of the current system, but it’s no more broken than is the system of non-profits that promote fear of bogeymen to keep the donations coming.

    None of these are issues that matter to the average voter, except in push polls where they can tell what the “correct” answer is. (Before they grab another coke from the fridge.) And it doesn’t help the broader cause of fixing the real problems when so much energy gets expended on bogus ones like genetic engineering.

    As with acid rain a generation ago, these problems get fixed incrementally and by negotiation among legislators. Expecting presidential candidates to talk about these “issues” is silly.

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    • Krofter

      Foster – Downplaying the problems with agriculture’s is the ultimate hyperbole and displays a lack of knowledge on the topic. The problems go way beyond CAFO’s and the Ogallalah aquifer. Recent research has found that the food you claim to be nutritious is actually 20 to 70% (depending on the crop) less nutritious then the food your great grandparents ate because the soil it’s being grown in has been depleted of nutrients by modern farming techniques. This has all led to an explosion of chronic illness, the likes of which has never before been seen by the human race. In fact the only place I part ways with Mark is that I would say that a crises of gun violence is not an issue “alongside” diet related diseases, it’s because of them. Many cutting edge doctors now recognize that mental health problems stem from nutritional issues.
      As for people not caring about agriculture, one would have to be living in cave to not see the explosion of farmers markets in this country over the past 20 years, mostly happening in “urban or suburban” areas.
      I guess I missed the announcement that acid rain is no longer an issue.