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

October 20, 2015 | 12:03 pm
Mark Bittman
Former Contributor

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hasn’t just appeared around the neck of Americans—it’s the consequence of a broken food system and the remnant of outdated policy choices.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.