Putting a New Food System on the Table

Nancy Romer Jan 21, 2013

Nancy Romer
Department of Agriculture

Can you imagine a food system that is centered around the local and regional production of healthy food for all people? I can, and as secretary of Agriculture I will pursue transformative policies that are framed by the overlapping contexts of climate change, inequality, racism, corporate domination and the need for food democracy. Significant defunding of the present military budget by my new colleagues at the Pentagon should provide sufficient support for the changes we need to make.

The current food and agricultural system contributes one-third of all greenhouse gases, so we must change how we grow, process and distribute food. As we strengthen local and regional food production, we will swiftly transition away from agriculture that requires fossil fuel-based pesticides and fertilizers. Subsidies to massive monocrop/heavy input farms will be shifted to medium-sized and small farms using agro-ecological practices. Programs supporting sustainable agriculture and diverse scales of farms need to grow, such as specialty crop, beginning farmer, organic and value-added programs.

Guided by the principle of “food sovereignty”— control of our food system by the people within a community — medium-sized and small farms are more able to incorporate agro-ecological practices and to meet the needs of their local food economies. The overproduction of corn, soy, wheat and rice (most of which are genetically engineered and require enormous amounts of water to irrigate) will end with the sunset of subsidies for these commodity crops. This will eliminate the de facto subsidy to concentrated livestock farming. Confined Animal Factory Operations (CAFOs) doling out inhumane treatment and growth hormone- and antibiotic-laced feed will be phased out within a short time. The official policy of the USDA will be to gradually wean ourselves off heavy meat consumption; meat production must be regulated to ensure healthy meat for consumers and better treatment of animals.

Inequality and Racism

At the new USDA, inequality and racism, in the present food system will be addressed. A massive jobs program with adequate wages, benefits and rights would bring millions of people out of poverty and provide them with incomes to purchase food. In the interim, we need to expand the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as food stamps, as well as the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC). Incentives to purchase food at farmers markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms and food coops must also be expanded. Providing healthy, fresh food is a powerful way for our government to invest in the lives of our people, to equalize opportunity for children and to prepare a healthy, stable population for the future. Higher expenditures for these programs now will result in savings in health care, education, unemployment and incarceration down the line.

Agricultural and domestic workers, left out of the National Labor Relations Act and Social Security laws, should now be included, giving them the right to organize and protect their interests. Minimum wages, decent working conditions and Social Security should be applied to these workers, most of whom are people of color and/or immigrants. Lifting up food workers, often the lowest paid with the fewest benefits and rights, will help eliminate hunger and poverty.

We must also be sure to support the wide range of conservation measures, including crop rotation and situating wildlife and windbreaks on or near farmland to promote biodiversity and soil conservation and defend against climate change. Hydraulic fracturing for mining of natural gas must be banned to prevent catastrophic poisoning of our water tables and farmland.

Food Policy Councils (FPCs) must be established and supported in all cities and counties and should be connected through state FPC networks. These councils will include community, farmer, worker, government and business interests with the heaviest representation from marginalized groups most affected by our present broken food system. These councils will contribute to planning a more localized food system that meets the needs of the people in the region: food sovereignty!

The survival and security of our people and our nation depend upon the food and nutrition security of everyone on the planet. The United States can lead in the development of sound food policies that support this goal. We can minimize climate change, adapt to it as it unfolds, create a more equitable society and live more harmoniously with nature, the ultimate judge and jury of our future. We can set an example and bring these practices to international agreements supported by the United Nations and other international bodies. We have a world to save and we can do a great deal of that through food and agriculture led by our communities and supported by our government.

Nancy Romer is a co-founder of the Brooklyn Food Coalition.

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