I had an entirely different post planned for today, but as you all surely know by now, sometimes I have a tough time keeping my mouth shut. This week, it’s the fault of the debt ceiling. So for now, I’ve got a platform and I’m going to use it — but I promise to tie all this back into food, too.
If you’ve been hearing a lot about this strange debt ceiling and you feel you don’t understand the situation, don’t worry. No one else does either. Because it’s not nearly as important as congressional Republicans would like us to believe. Yes, the change is necessary, but as this article from the National Journal points out, it’s misdirected change. We need serious talk about job creation, trade policy and improvements to our system that would improve the economy long term.
But Republicans these days are more interested in shallow political victories and short-sighted policies. Conservative politicians want to focus on massive spending cuts, choosing political benefit now – making it appear, to voters, that the Republican party is better for the economy — over economic benefits over time. And this prescriptive treatment applies to the economy and to our food system.
Over the last few months, we’ve seen the cutting back or complete elimination of such “wasteful” spending as WIC and food stamps, school lunch kitchens where fresh, homemade food is cooked, farmland conservation and the FDA’s regulatory budget. Shockingly, these cuts tend to disproportionately affect poor minorities or other groups without massive lobbying budgets, and tend to focus on social insurance programs (for those who believe that these spending cuts are indiscriminate, and only being done in the name of economic reform).
While I know social programs can be controversial, a concentrated, government-wide decision not to invest in the future of people is short-sighted, shoot-ourselves-in-the-feet economics that will detonate the barely-breathing U.S. economy and not far down the road. We all pay for social programs eventually. The decision is whether to pay for them now, as up front costs that have the potential to grow the economy, or to pay for them later, in the significantly inflated backdoor costs that are the fallout of spending cuts.
When WIC, food stamps, and school lunch programs are cut, poor families suffer, mostly by eating either less food, or food that is less healthy. But we all pay the cost of those nutritional deficits years down the road, in increased healthcare costs.
When farmland conservation programs are cut, farmers can’t stop growing food. So they resort to cheaper, more eco-intensive growing methods, degrading the land and water in ways it takes the planet decades to recover from. We all pay that cost, when we pay for emergency disaster relief, when we pay the EPA to clean up polluted waterways, or when, over time, the yields from our farms go down and down and down.
When the FDA’s regulatory budget is cut, it diminishes that agency’s already tenuous ability to enforce food safety standards designed to prevent cross-contamination that causes E.coli or salmonella outbreaks. We all pay for that, when we get sick with salmonella, or when a scare increases the prices of our food, when our children actually die from these diseases.
When Congress pulls funding for regulations necessitating country-of-origin labeling, it limits the ability of small-scale producers to compete against large-scale producers, who can outsource their meat-packing to cheap labor countries with lax safety standards. We all pay the increases in food safety costs, of course.
But we’re not just paying out the you-know-what for these short-sighted mistakes. We’re also missing an opportunity to benefit from long-term improvements.
The labeling I mention above would actually make it easier to be a small farmer in the United States, especially in a localized, sustainable economy. Where’s all that conservative rhetoric about supporting small businesses when we’re talking about regulations that favor small over large?
We need a new food system in this country. We need a new, different, localized infrastructure that supports innovation, farmer’s markets and buying clubs, that favors organic and sustainable production. And getting those things? Would create jobs. Would grow local economies. Would employ people who are currently unemployed and feed people who are currently unfed. All while protecting us from the impending disaster of climate change by stabilizing and decentralizing our food source.
This is the definition of a win-win — for American voters. It’s a big-time lose for Big Ag, and that’s why it’s not a political reality.
Last week in his column, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman asked this of economic stimulus:
Where are the big public works projects? Where are the armies of government workers? There are actually half a million fewer government employees now than there were when Mr. Obama took office.
Unfortunately, we both know the answer to that one. They are in line for food stamps they can’t get anymore. Because rather than looking toward the future and employing some of that great American ingenuity politicians so love to tout, our leaders are busy making deals to guarantee they’ve got the money to run campaign ads next fall, by making policies that please corporate powers like Monsanto.
That strategy might even work. Chances are good that without that money, a politician doesn’t win an election. But in doing business this way, we are tanking the long-term U.S. economy and food supply, not to mention the health and well-being of the American people.
Just as when Americans decided to stop cooking for themselves, and let multinational billion-dollar-profit corporations take on that responsibility, we are feeling the negative effects. Corporate food made us fatter, and significantly more likely to die of heart disease and diabetes than any other country on the planet. When we, the people, don’t speak up, corporations fill the vacuum left by the absence of the voice of the people. And they aren’t speaking for us.
There is a fundamental idealogical choice being made here, to sacrifice the future in exchange for a present political victory. And every time we don’t question that, or every time we imagine it doesn’t matter that food stamps are cut because we’re not on food stamps, we reinforce that choice. It’s up to us to ask more questions, to get more involved, to look and understand beyond the soundbite, in order to show our leaders that we can see the future they are creating for us, and we want a different one.