For years, I’ve talked about what I like to call “less-meatarianism” – an attempt to move away from the all-or-nothing mantras of dietary restrictions and think about incremental investments that we as eaters can make in a healthier and more sustainable food system.
Eating less and better meat makes sense from just about every perspective. At this point, we know that reducing meat consumption and eating more plant-based foods promotes better health (something the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are finally talking about, though not explicitly enough). Beyond our health, decreasing meat consumption could have far-reaching implications for industrial meat production and its practices that we know are damaging to our environment, our workers, and our animals’ welfare.
When talking about food choices in this way, you often hear the phrase “vote with your fork,” and while I’m all in favor of smart individual decisions, I’m more than a little bothered by this instruction. When we make the point of action the consumer’s “decision” around what to eat, we obscure the reality that the key change-maker in the food system is not the eater; rather it’s producers and policymakers. And when we ignore their role in determining what our choices are and how they were produced, we absolve them of responsibility to fix them.
Eating less meat is an important step toward improving our health and a meaningful signal of our values, but without systemic policy change we’d be hard-pressed to actually reform production practices to focus on quality not quantity, and on raising animals in ways that are more humane and less catastrophic for the environment. These policy changes could then help scale subsequent behavior change, making it a whole lot easier to actually take the government’s dietary advice.
Unfortunately, making these changes isn’t so simple, given the power of Big Food and the subservient, fragmented and tangled nature of our food policies. Let’s say you want to change the way we raise and consume meat in this country. Depending where zoom in on the process, you could be dealing with any number of agencies: The Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Labor, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Department of Health and Human Services, for starters. And of course, each of these entities has its own stated mission and its own rules to support that mission. And each is being heavily lobbied to maintain the status quo, which benefits producers at the expense of eaters, and indeed of society at large.
There aren’t only conflicting missions between agencies but within agencies, effectively sabotaging their own success from the start. The USDA, for example, is simultaneously tasked with expanding markets for agricultural products like corn and soy and providing nutrition education to discourage eating the very foods they’re supporting. To borrow the old adage, the food system’s left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing (or more accurately, it isn’t tasked with caring).
Fixing this will require overarching and coherent policies that govern the whole body of the food system – a national food plan that aligns the priorities of each agency around the same vision for a healthy and sustainable food system.
This goal didn’t feel especially achievable two months ago, and now it feels like a pipe dream. While the President-Elect bucks political etiquette and wavers on his promises to drain the swamp, he’s lining his hallways with Big Food, Big Oil and Big Money – all of which reap the benefits from the status quo of our food system.
And so we must adapt our strategies and tactics to the new challenge at hand.
If we learned anything from this presidential campaign, it’s that much or most of the people in this country are looking for a message of change. It’s up to those of us who want to make progress toward a better world to figure out how to channel this discontent toward building a healthy and sustainable food system. We know that food policy reform has the potential to be a powerful bipartisan issue, but given its diffuse nature and complex design, advocates have struggled to communicate to the broader public what we know to be true: that our current system benefits only a select few, and that it does so at the expense of our nation’s health, our workers, our animals, and our environment.
In selecting his cabinet, Trump may have handed us an opportunity to finally make this case more clearly. He’s assembled a roster of billionaires and Washington insiders that are among the greatest beneficiaries of the status quo, bringing together fast food CEOs and fossil fuel kingpins with those seeking to undo environmental protections, dismantle healthcare coverage and overhaul immigration regulations. His cabinet may inadvertently provide just what the food movement has lacked in this effort for food system reform: a clear, unequivocal target that reflects the interconnections of food system policies. It is now our task to illuminate how these special interests work together to make themselves richer, and even more importantly, how they do so at the expense of the American people.
If we are able to successfully communicate this economic message in a broad bipartisan way, we can empower voters to hold our elected officials accountable to adopt a coherent national food plan that supports the public’s well-being, our workers, our animals, and our environment. And gone are the days of voting with our forks alone – if our elected officials fail to deliver, we’ll have built the collective power we need to elect new ones who will.