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Food Policy We Can't Believe In

Posted: 02/15/11 06:30 PM ET

As the popular face of the Obama administration's advocacy for healthy, nutritious food, Michelle Obama has conveniently side-stepped several critical consumer food issues like organics, genetically engineered food, fair markets for farmers and ranchers, and local and regional food economies. But, while Mrs. Obama has remained silent on these topics, the actions of the agencies that regulate our food under President Obama speak volumes. And progressives don't like what they are hearing.

Last year, the FDA began paving the way for approval of genetically engineered (GE) salmon. They pressed on despite the lack of independent research to determine what the health or environmental impacts of such a product would be, and despite concerns from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the FDA's process to "fast track" GE salmon's approval. The first transgenic animal approved for human consumption, GE salmon, would open the floodgates for GE cows and pigs, which biotech companies are waiting in the wings to finally commercialize after years of research and development.

But Americans don't want it: A 2009 Consumer Reports poll revealed that the majority of consumers would not eat genetically engineered food, while a poll Food & Water Watch conducted with Lake Research Partners last year showed that 78 percent of Americans were against the approval of a GE salmon for human consumption.

Now, the USDA has approved the unrestricted growing of GE alfalfa, which could destroy the organic dairy industry and block farmers from the export market since many countries won't accept GE-contaminated crops. The USDA has also "partially deregulated" GE sugar beets. Soon, many candy bars in America could be produced from sugar grown with Monsanto's dangerous Roundup Ready herbicide.

Consumers don't want GE food, nor do they want mystery meat processed and shipped from who knows where. A few weeks back, coinciding with President Hu Jintao's visit, the USDA moved a step closer to allowing poultry imports from China, which has an atrocious food safety record. If this were to take effect, consumers of some poultry products would have no idea whether their chicken came from Georgia or Guangdong, since Country-of-Origin-Labeling does not pertain to processed poultry and meat products.

And while the Obama administration is ignoring consumers' simple pleas for safer food and more information about where their food is coming from and how it's produced, they're neglecting the small and medium food operations that are a critical source of good jobs and are vital to restoring regional food systems that deliver fresh, healthy food to everyone -- not just those of us who can afford to shop at the farmers market or have the time to keep up our own gardens.

This administration has delayed the implementation of rules that would give farmers fair access to markets, even though the last Farm Bill unequivocally authorized the USDA to do so. These rules would enable small-and-medium-sized livestock farmers to compete with the four companies that process more than 85 percent of the beef slaughtered in the U.S. Currently, these farmers barely make enough money to stay afloat.

It's not just the people who grow our food on land who are getting the shaft. The administration is promoting unsustainable plans including offshore factory fish farming and "catch and trade" schemes, which skew fisheries toward industrial production, leading to lower wages and fewer jobs for small and medium fishing operations.

Is the first-term Obama administration "dissing" his base and following the money? What are people dissatisfied with this failure to do?

The answer: Eaters must become more political. We can't just vote with our forks.

Our voices must begin to compete with the very strong preference elected politicians have for getting reelected -- and funding their campaigns. All too often, the money from giant commercial interests is just too delicious to pass up. Over the last decade, top food and agriculture biotechnology firms and trade associations spent more than half a billion dollars -- $572 million -- in campaign contributions to lobby Congress in support of controversial projects like GE food.

Unfortunately, midsized poultry farmers in Alabama or independent fishermen off the coast of California don't have the clout or money to compete with these interests, nor can they organize a press conference with Mrs. Obama like Wal-Mart can.

Mrs. Obama's vision for healthy food is at best fragmented and at worst a failure. She does not address the root causes of our broken food system, where a few powerful players make all of the decisions about what we eat and write the rules for the economic survival of independent producers. It does, however, complement President Obama's industry bias.

Working with agribusiness and global retailers is politically expedient, but it is not the change eaters can believe in. So eaters, put down your forks, and pick up your pens and phones. Let Washington know that they have a clear mandate to fix our broken food system.

Wenonah Hauter is executive director of Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based national consumer organization. This post originally appeared at Food & Water Watch's blog.