EATEN ALIVE?

What Trump means for food activists

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As the shock grenade of his electoral college victory begins to wear off, the Donald Trump administration is now coming into focus. Rightfully, much of the emphasis has been on whether he’ll follow through on the nastiest, most racist campaign promises he made.

But as time goes on, the scale and variety of the changes that a Trump administration could bring becomes clear. For example, he’d like to cut funding for NASA’s earth-science research because it has helped bring to light some inconvenient truths about the climate.

And, as many Americans sit down to eat Thursday, there’s another realm to consider: the nation’s food policy. Beyond the availability of ever-larger turkeys, food policy plays a role in how the nation farms, the health crises sweeping an increasingly overweight nation, kids going hungry, salmonella outbreaks at burrito chains, the contributions of agriculture to climate change, and looming water shortages in the west.

In what seems like another dimension of spacetime also known as 2008, Michael Pollan, writing for The New York Times, called on then President-elect Barack Obama to reform the nation’s food policies:

Which brings me to the deeper reason you will need not simply to address food prices but to one of the highest priorities of your administration: unless you do, you will not be able to make significant progress on the health care crisis, energy independence or climate change. Unlike food, these are issues you did campaign on — but as you try to address them you will quickly discover that the way we currently grow, process and eat food in America goes to the heart of all three problems and will have to change if we hope to solve them.

Looking back, we can see that the Obama administration did, in fact, make the United States substantially more energy independent (largely through increased use of fracked gas and oil), monumentally changed the health care system, and inked the biggest climate treaty in global history.

But did food policy change much? Nope.

President-elect Barack Obama, for his part, seemed to understand the way all these issues intersected. “[O]ur agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector,” he told Time‘s Joe Klein. “And in the mean time, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs.”

But as Pollan reflects in an essay published last month, this quote was basically the high-water mark for President Obama’s food-policy reform efforts. The food industry, writ large, batted back attempts at reform within the first couple years of the administration, and then rode out the remainder of his terms with little to worry about. “As the Obamas prepare to leave the White House, Big Food can congratulate itself on retaining its political grip on Washington,” Pollan writes. “It seems very unlikely that the next occupant of the White House is going to pose as stiff a challenge.”

And he wrote that before Donald Trump’s surprise victory.

So what might Trump do?

On the campaign trail, Trump talked a lot of smack about the Food and Drug Administration. The food policy wonks at Civil Eats pointed out several different ways that Trump could gut both existing regulations and starve the agencies responsible for their enforcement.

“None of this bodes well for regulations designed to protect the food supply,” they wrote. The most hopeful statement they could make was: “Questions remain on how far the incoming president can go when it comes undermining or dismantling the existing rules and regulations.” But that assumes that the Trump administration will follow the norms established in previous presidencies, about which… questions also remain.

Then there’s what Congressional Republicans might be able to push through while Trump is out playing The Trump Show, like cutting the budget of programs like SNAP, the supplemental nutritional assistance program, which feeds a lot of hungry kids and has traditionally been part of the Farm Bill, which will be considered in 2018.

One place to watch is who Trump appoints as his Secretary of Agriculture. Right now, there are many names swirling, mostly Indiana, Kansas, Texas, and Iowa politicians (and even some farmers).

Trump has said little explicitly about the food system, but he did have about 70 people on an agricultural advisory board. Politico also dug up a few times Trump went off-script to talk farming: “We are going to end this war on the American farmer,” Trump told farmers back in August.