Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Politics of ...... Eating!

I’m coming to realize more and more how interrelated food and politics really are. Just think about life during the Cold War and the stark difference between free societies and those locked behind the Iron Curtain when it comes to food. People waited in line for hours in the former Soviet Union just to receive bread and other basics for survival, while those of us (ok, most of us) in the free world had ready access to a wide array of food choices. Even today there are definitive correlations between food availability and forms of government. Just look at the Koreas. In North Korea, now (thankfully) deceased tyrant Kim Jong Il allowed tens of thousands of his own people to starve to death during his lifetime due to poor food policy choices and the denial of international food aid. Just across the border in South Korea, however, food is plentiful and in abundant supply (though there are still those who suffer from malnutrition as in every nation of the world).

Here in the US, we often debate the roll and scope of government when it comes to food (and everything else). It is one of the great political divides in this country; do we need government to step in and regulate and monitor and oversee business, healthcare, education, and food (to name a few)? Or do things flourish best with a Laissez faire (in other words, the government keeps it’s hands out of it) approach?

Admittedly, I tend toward the belief that free markets work best. Communism is a proven failure, but that doesn’t make Capitalism perfect… certainly not in its present state. And I find myself conflicted when it comes to regulations and my food. On the one hand, I would very much like to have a food system that is regulated for safety, health standards, truth in labeling, treatment of livestock standards, work and safety conditions for employees, and environmental standards. But on the other hand, I don’t want Uncle Sam (which in 2010, he decided he could do so) telling me that I can’t grow my own vegetables or purchase raw milk from a local farmer if he doesn’t deem those options as safe for my personal consumption.

I also have issues with the federal government taking a more hands-on approach to regulating the food system when it is already sadly inept at enforcing the laws and standards which currently exist. And if the government is going to interfere with free markets, why does it choose to do so in a way that benefits massive agribusiness corporations at the expense of small family farms? Shouldn’t it be interfering to level the playing field for the little guy? Not siding up with Goliath by stealing David’s slingshot? [I’m referring here, in part, to subsidized corn (corn paid for with YOUR tax dollars) which benefits large factory farms (enabling them to keep their product costs down); small farmers do not receive these subsidies which means that their product prices must actually reflect the true cost of production.]

The FDA currently does very little to ensure truth in labeling and currently refuses to require any labeling for genetically modified foods. In addition, it does nothing to stop or even curb the use of antimicrobials in agriculture, something the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has been urging them to do. Though there are laws in place to ensure that ground water and streams are not polluted by the massive amount of waste generated at CFOs (Confined Feeding Operations), they are largely ignored by the industry and often go unchecked by federal officials. There are labor laws in place to protect the health and wellbeing of farm workers, yet thousands are exposed to near deadly levels of ammonia in the air they are forced to breathe while caring for animals in CFOs on a daily basis. This exposure causes long-term damage and has even been known to be fatal, yet these issues persist.

And what really gets my goat is that the Right Wing wants to go into hysterics because the Obama Administration is requiring higher nutritional standards for our school children’s lunches! Really? That’s your line in the sand? Let it slide by that what can be grown in our yards can be deemed unsafe for our own consumption, but how dare you try to improve the nutrition of the only meal of the day that some of our nation’s children will have access to?  (Sorry, that is my rant of the day!)

So, I’m a little conflicted at the moment as to what roll the government should have in our food system and how much control the federal government should be allowed to exert. I know that I want the freedom to make good choices where my own nutrition is concerned. I know that I want the freedom to grow my own food and purchase it from friends, neighbors, and local farmers. I know that I want to know if the foods I’m eating were designed by God or engineered in a lab. I know that I want to leave this world in better shape than it is in right now. I know that I want animals to be treated with respect and dignity even if their final resting place is on a plate! I know that I want those who work hard to ensure that I have food to eat receive a decent enough wage that they can provide proper nutrition for their own families. I know that our current system is broken. And I know that I don’t trust anyone in Washington DC to care more about these issues than I do. So, that’s what I know.

I would very much like to know your opinions on this issue. How involved is too involved where the federal government is concerned? Is more regulation the answer? Is deregulation the answer? How can we as citizens and consumers do a better job of holding our leaders accountable? How do we move toward a more sustainable, healthier, environmentally better food system?

(Here is a link to The Politics of Dancing for your listening and viewing pleasure! You're welcome!)

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