The politics of food

It's not as catchy as "the global test," but hunger, organic foods, and GMOs are political issues

The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they feed themselves.
— Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin,
The Physiology of Taste (1825)

Although the politics of food isn't overtly a campaign issue for either major presidential candidate, food issues including hunger, nutrition, and technology influence foreign and domestic policy. Environmental activists continue to battle the U.S. government over labeling of organic foods and the proliferation of genetically modified organisms, which are made using biotechnologies that alter the genetic makeup of plants or bacteria. In trade negotiations with the U.S., many countries have enacted policies to avoid importing GMOs. And more Americans are living below the poverty level, increasing the likelihood that they are hungry.

While Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb and Democrat John Kerry have stated they support organic agriculture, Republican George Bush hasn't taken an official stance on the issue.

However, in a report written by Mitchell Clute and published in this month's Natural Foods Merchandiser, under the Bush administration the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed not implementing organic standards for fish, nutritional supplements, and personal care products. The USDA also planned to allow milk from dairy cows that were treated with antibiotics to be sold as organic just months after the drugs were administered. The USDA backed down due to public pressure.

Organic food is produced without antibiotics, hormones, synthetic pesticides, animal byproducts, or sewage sludge. Meat labeled organic cannot have been irradiated and animals must have had access to the outdoors. There is yet to be an organic standard set for fish.

Environmental activists continue to battle the U.S. government over labeling of organic foods and the proliferation of genetically modified organisms.
A Consumers Union report stated that earlier this month the National Organic Standards Board, the USDA's advisory committee of scientists, farmers, certifiers, consumers, and retailers met with the USDA about its organic labeling requirements. Under pressure from agriculture and food activists, the USDA is rewriting some of its labeling rules and plans to ask for public comment on them.

In 2003, the Bush administration demanded that the World Trade Organization intervene in allowing the U.S. to export more GMO food to the European Union, which has limited their importation over safety concerns.

While critics charge that the Federal Drug Administration hasn't adequately tested the safety of GMOs (the modified crops also can contaminate nearby non-GMO fields), Monsanto, the nexus of GMO research and production, contends they are safe. The agribusiness giant contributed $43,000 to Republicans from 2001-04, while giving just $5,000 to Democrats.

As an industry, agribusiness contributed $37 million to political candidates in the 2004 election cycle; $26.2 million to Republicans and $10.8 to Democrats.

Kerry also supports GMOs - Cobb is the only candidate to oppose them - and the Des Moines Register reported that pro-agribusiness Texas Congressman Charlie Stenholm, a GMO proponent, is on Kerry's short list for Agriculture Secretary.

Beyond farming practices, the candidates' domestic agenda - jobs, health care, living wage provisions - affect the food insecurity index, a measurement used by the USDA to determine the percentage of Americans who have access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members.

In 2002, the latest data available, 12.1 million Americans couldn't get enough food for their households, up from 10.7 percent in 2001. Of these "food insecure" households, 3.8 million of them had at least one family member who went hungry.

Texas ranked third in percentage of food insecure households, with 12.9 percent, compared to a national average of 9.7 percent. Only New Mexico (15.1 percent) and Mississippi (14 percent) ranked higher.

So if Brillat-Savarin is correct, the U.S. future doesn't look bright. The manner in which we feed ourselves is with antibiotics, pesticides, and other chemicals, or for some, with little food at all.

By Lisa Sorg

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