Even though only 2 percent of Americans live on farms in 2016, agricultural policy remains extremely important. Why? Everyone has to eat.
It is unsettling to observe that, while Iowa's caucuses in February forced presidential candidates to pay lip service to agricultural policy, the subject quickly receded from their radar. Food and farm issues may be hard to package in 30-second sound bites, and they certainly do not lend themselves to cutting debate repartee, but that does not mean they should dwell in the shadows of this 2016 election season. Far from it.
Today, Americans are more concerned than ever before about what they're eating, how it was grown, where it was grown and by whom. And just as those vying to lead our executive branch need to have a basic grasp of foreign affairs, they also need to understand the basics of the farm and nutrition policies that touch us all, every day of the year, in the most visceral way.
As we choose the next leader of our country, here are nine of the most important food policy questions that we should be asking the presidential candidates:
1. In 2015, Forbes reported that seven of the 10 worst-paying jobs in America are in the food and farming sectors. Additionally, farm workers often struggle with injustice and a lack of safe working conditions. What would you do to improve the conditions and wages of those who work throughout the food system?
2. According to a recent New York Times poll, more than 90 percent of Americans want foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled. What is your stance on GMO labeling?
3. There is a growing interest in organic food in the U.S., yet many organic farmers are struggling to meet consumers' demands — or even to stay on their farms. How would you support small and medium-sized organic farmers?
4. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a domestic hunger safety net that helps ensure that all families can afford healthy food. However, it is often devalued and underfunded. How would you make SNAP more effective and what else would you do to eliminate hunger in America?
5. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, improving the average American diet by adding more fruits and vegetables could save 100,000 lives and $17 billion in health care costs. Meanwhile, dangerous pesticides abound in our food system. What would you do to ensure that all Americans have access to food that is safe, nutritious and affordable?
6. Urban agriculture has emerged as a means of fostering community food security and even social justice, youth empowerment, dignity and civic engagement. How would your administration support these endeavors?
7. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, increasing temperatures, droughts, floods and other impacts of climate change will have a drastic effect on food production, particularly in the developing world. What plans do you have to mitigate the effects of climate change on agriculture and to help farmers adapt?
8. Industrial-scale agriculture has polluted waterways, eroded topsoil and impaired biodiversity. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and a large number of scientists have recently highlighted the multiple benefits of growing a healthy and biodiverse mix of crops for resilience and nutrition. What would you do, as president, to increase research funding and support for agroecology?
9. President Barack Obama instituted several sustainable food initiatives during his administration. How would you carry these initiatives forward to your presidency?
It is critical that the next president understand that her or his decisions regarding the growing, processing and marketing of food, biofuels and fiber will have tremendous impacts not only on American consumers, farmers and the environment, but also on agriculture and food systems throughout the world. Global trade deals, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, will affect the quality and safety of food and the viability of farming in the U.S. and elsewhere. American leadership needs to be extremely attentive to the voices of farmers, rural communities and grassroots agrarian organizations — and not only to corporate Big Ag and the heads of state who are beholden to it.
Food and farm policy must acknowledge and appreciate the amazing diversity within global agri-food systems — biological, cultural, economic, geographic and technological. Ensuring that farmers — in the U.S. and beyond — have the means to be good stewards of the land and provide healthy, safe, culturally appropriate and affordable food for all is not just good policy; it's good politics.