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Barack the Table


I have read a seemingly unending stream of open letters to the President-Elect, each doling out copious amounts of advice and admonition for the new administration. While I realize that President-Elect Obama has a lot on his plate, I hope he’ll consider the metaphor a bit more literally. Many of the issues we face can be tied to food.

Take energy for example. Depending on the resource you consult, food production takes anywhere from a sixth to a quarter of the energy we use in the country. Most of that goes toward meat production. Here in Iowa, a vast majority of what we grow is used not to feed people, but to feed livestock. The rest is not food either, but fuel (and an inefficient form of it at that), following a concept that brilliant author Raj Patel calls “the preposterous notion that we should grow food in order to set it on fire.”

Then there is the small matter of the oil we eat. Michael Pollan’s research led to the conclusion that a happy meal from a McDonald’s drive-thru consumes two-and-a-half gallons of oil from start to finish. Remember, billions and billions served. Nourishing our families is more important than fueling our cars, and the two processes should not be conducted in identical manners.

I so admire the President-Elect’s call to sacrifice, especially since his predecessor asked it of none but our soldiers and their families (not the rest of us). Also, his plans to repair our standing in the world after President Bush squandered its goodwill are to be commended. Because energy and health are near the top of his agenda, and we live in a world where a billion people are starving and a billion more are, perversely, overweight and undernourished, we can set about making an impact with simple ways. Some have recommended, as a small step, asking people to consider going without meat one day a week.

It’s not that hard. Cereal for breakfast, a big salad for lunch and a pasta or rice dish for supper. Nothing you might not have on any ordinary day. In return you save money, your health and the environment. Meanwhile 14 percent of the energy used on meat production can be used to help feed the world, or better yet to help teach the world to feed itself. No real hardship for you or me–big benefit for others.

Now of course there would be cries of people saying, “I don’t want the government telling me what to eat.”  Well, very sorry to break the news to you, but they already do, and none of it is good for you. America’s agricultural policy (all we have in lieu of a cohesive food policy), is designed around a quantity-trumps-quality, get-big-or-get-out mentality that forces all of us, especially on the lower economic rungs (big surprise), to eat pounds of empty calories, which in turn has led directly to America’s epidemics of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and stroke.

Speaking of health care, why not have some? For decades, our system has gone farther and farther down the road of treating, rather than preventing, disease. It’s almost as if no one had ever said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is very simple economics here: you lower health care costs by having fewer sick people. You have fewer sick people by preventing that which is preventable, which according to most doctors is roughly two-thirds of all the heart disease, diabetes and cancer we currently suffer from. And it all goes back to what we eat.

Here then, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Roots of Change Fund and Slow Food USA, is a simple 12-point plan to guide our new food policy. You can sign onto it at www.FoodDeclaration.org

The Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture:

We, the undersigned, believe that a healthy food system is necessary to meet the urgent challenges of our time. Behind us stands a half-century of industrial food production, underwritten by cheap fossil fuels, abundant land and water resources, and a drive to maximize the global harvest of cheap calories. Ahead lie rising energy and food costs, a changing climate, declining water supplies, a growing population, and the paradox of widespread hunger and obesity.

These realities call for a radically different approach to food and agriculture. We believe that the food system must be reorganized on a foundation of health: for our communities, for people, for animals and for the natural world. The quality of food, and not just its quantity, ought to guide our agriculture. The ways we grow, distribute, and prepare food should celebrate our various cultures and our shared humanity, providing not only sustenance, but justice, beauty and pleasure.

Governments have a duty to protect people from malnutrition, unsafe food, and exploitation, and to protect the land and water on which we depend from degradation. Individuals, producers, and organizations have a duty to create regional systems that can provide healthy food for their communities. We all have a duty to respect and honor the laborers of the land without whom we could not survive. The changes we call for here have begun, but the time has come to accelerate the transformation of our food and agriculture and make its benefits available to all.

We believe that the following 12 principles should frame food and agriculture policy, to ensure that it will contribute to the health and wealth of the nation and the world. A healthy food and agriculture policy:

  1. Forms the foundation of secure and prosperous societies, healthy communities and healthy people.
  2. Provides access to affordable, nutritious food to everyone.
  3. Prevents the exploitation of farmers, workers and natural resources; the domination of genomes and markets; and the cruel treatment of animals, by any nation, corporation or individual.
  4. Upholds the dignity, safety and quality of life for all who work to feed us.
  5. Commits resources to teach children the skills and knowledge essential to food production, preparation, nutrition and enjoyment.
  6. Protects the finite resources of productive soils, fresh water and biological diversity.
  7. Strives to remove fossil fuel from every link in the food chain and replace it with renewable resources and energy.
  8. Originates from a biological rather than an industrial framework.
  9. Fosters diversity in all its relevant forms: diversity of domestic and wild species; diversity of foods, flavors and traditions; diversity of ownership.
  10. Requires a national dialog concerning technologies used in production, and allows regions to adopt their own respective guidelines on such matters.
  11. Enforces transparency so that citizens know how their food is produced, where it comes from and what it contains.
  12. Promotes economic structures and supports programs to nurture the development of just and sustainable regional farm and food networks.

Our pursuit of healthy food and agriculture unites us as people and as communities, across geographic boundaries, and social and economic lines. We pledge our votes, our purchases, our creativity, and our energies to this urgent cause.


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