Politics & Elections: Nutrition as Policy

In the midst of presidential campaign theatrics and positioning, some folks are actually talking about issues.

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Not everything in this political year has to do with election strategy. Occasionally, there is a mention of real-life – as in what is really going on in rural communities and how politics and government might be of help.

Today, we will review a few stories that deal with, yes, issues. And we begin with a complaint from the dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy who says food is the “single biggest election issue not on the table.”

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Food, writes Darius Mozaffarian, is an issue everywhere. Poor nutrition is the leading cause of poor health. And food has a tremendous environmental impact, accounting for 70 percent of our water use, 90 percent of tropical deforestation and as much greenhouse gas emissions as all the world’s transportation combined.

We spend billions on health care and billions more on the environment, and so it makes sense that “our food system should be front-and-center, receiving abundant attention from candidates, the media, debate moderators, and the public.”

But it’s not, Mozaffarian writes. He continues:

This is nutrition’s time. More than ever, the public is deeply interested in healthy and sustainable eating, while many across industry recognize that their success depends on being part of the solution.  And, tremendous advances in nutrition science and policy science have us poised to deliver major breakthroughs toward a healthier and more prosperous America.  With strong elected leaders, we can bring together modern science and robust stakeholder networks to achieve real change.  And we could do this quickly, learning from past successes to accomplish in 10 years what required 50 years for tobacco reduction, 70 years for car safety, and 100+ years for water and sanitation.

But first we need to talk about it.

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Some people are trying to make food and agriculture a topic for discussion during the ongoing presidential campaign. Reuters reports that a dozen trade associations, including the Farm Bureau and the Farmers Union, met with staff of Democrat Hillary Clinton in the campaign’s New York headquarters. The group is also trying to get a meeting with the Trump campaign.

The farm organizations worry that a decline in commodity prices could lead to a 56 percent decline in farm income from 2013.

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One issue that has been put front and center is food labeling for genetically modified foods. The Senate voted last week for a confusing bill that would require food to carry labels listing GMO ingredients and pre-empt state labeling laws, such as the one that just went into effect in Vermont.

It’s an odd-duck kind of bill. The GMO ingredients aren’t required to be listed on the label. And the label really isn’t a label. Rather the label will be required to carry a combination of words, pictures or a bar code that could be scanned with smartphones.

Ag writer Alan Guebert writes that this “bioengineered food disclosure system” has “more dodges in it than a used car lot.” He calls it a “non labeling label” bill.

The bill came under criticism from the editorial page of The New York Times, which notes that the bill would allow plenty of GMO foods to be unlabeled and that the labels that are called for are confusing.

Yes, the Times concedes, most scientists find no problem with GMO foods. But people want the information. Now that Vermont’s GMO labeling bill has gone into effect, look for this to be one food issue that gets some play during the campaign.

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Over at The Atlantic, Ron Brownstein notes that red (Republican-leaning) states have been the most resistant to promoting so-called green electric energy (wind and solar), but that economically these are the same states that are benefiting from an alternative energy boom promoted by blue states.

Quite simply, Brownstein notes, red and blue states are diverging politically even as they have found common ground in solar and wind production. “The pivotal, and unresolved, question is whether the political divergence or economic convergence will more heavily shape the next stages of the fractious debate over climate change and the nation’s energy mix,” Brownstein writes.

Since 1983, 29 states have passed laws requiring utilities to generate a fixed share of their electric power from renewable sources. Initially, blue and red states both pushed for renewable production.

But more recently, red states have repealed or shied away from renewable standards. And 26 states, almost all led by Republican governors, sued to block federal rules requiring states to reduce emission of greenhouse gases, a policy that would result in a higher demand for renewable electricity.

Meanwhile, however, there’s been a boom in renewable energy production. Renewable sources of electricity now account for 10 percent of all power, up from 3 percent ten years ago. And this increase has been taking place in many red states, Brownstein writes. California is the biggest producer of renewable energy and is reliably blue, but the other states in the top 10 are largely red or a shade of purple.

But will the politics of energy production follow the economic benefits?

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As the number of coal miners in the country continues to decline. High Country News has a good group of charts measuring the drop in coal employment, especially in the West.

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At the left-leaning Nation, John Nichols writes that “Democrats can compete for rural votes,” but that the party’s platform gives “scant attention this year” to rural issues…. Only one small portion of the draft document—titled “Agricultural Communities” and tucked away in the great big “Bring Americans Together and Remove Barriers to Create Ladders of Opportunity” section—speaks specifically to rural America.

Nichols counts 80 words in that section. We quote from the draft party platform the entire section:

 We will work to build a stronger rural and agricultural economy. Democrats will spur investment to power the rural economy and increase funding to support the next generation of farmers and ranchers. We will expand local food markets and regional food systems and provide a focused safety net to assist family operations that need support during challenging times. And we will promote clean energy leadership and collaborative stewardship of our natural resources, while expanding opportunities in rural communities across America.

Nichols then lists what the platform doesn’t mention: universal broadband, anti-trust enforcement in the agriculture business, country-of-origin labeling, discrimination against African-American farmers, health care, the decline of the postal service or rural education.

Nichols contends Democrats can win rural votes, but they “need to be more aggressive in their advocacy for rural regions.”

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Finally – and this has nothing to do with issues, we just found it interesting – there is a new company that sets up an Uber-like ride-sharing programs in rural counties. Could be very useful in counties with aging populations. Read about it here.

 

 

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