Food and Loathing On the Campaign Trail ’20

The 2020 Democratic primary has yet to discuss the food system in any significant way. Why?

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Apart from the scandals and corruption of the current administration, two of the most salient topics in the still-embryonic 2020 presidential election are climate change and income inequality. They’re intricately tied together, of course, and one of the ways they intersect is through the industrialized American food system. It belches out greenhouse gases, poisons waterways with nitrogen-rich soil runoff, and contributes to the untenable situation where the U.S. produces 25 percent of global emissions with less than five percent of the population.

Globally, we have 11 years to avoid disaster, per the best scientific estimates. And if Democrats are serious about repairing the atmosphere and restoring America’s mantle of moral leadership, it stands to reason that Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, Elizabeth Warren, and all the rest of them ought to focus on what and how we eat, and the effects of our hideously inefficient food system.

But they aren’t. Once, as mayor of Newark, N.J., Cory Booker challenged himself to eat for a month the way an American who uses the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program has to eat (which is to say, extremely frugally). The Trump administration has proposed drastic cuts to SNAP, but where is Booker’s voice today? During the 35-day government shutdown, Warren singled out the FDA as an agency whose work was essential to public health, but now that things are “normal,” shouldn’t she venture to some North Carolina hog lagoon and say, “This is not right, industry has too much say over its own regulation, and we can do better”? Can’t any of the many senators in the running indulge in just a bit of grandstanding, to tie Mitch McConnell’s intransigence on a carbon tax to the very real likelihood of a future without coffee?

The Democrats have made waves to set themselves apart from their tentative rivals, but they’re ignoring the most visceral way to get their messages across. As querulous as Bernie Sanders is, his website mentions agribusiness only in passing. Even wonkier, long-shot candidates like Andrew Yang who dedicate sections on their websites to free marriage counseling and MMA fighters exclude the ramifications of food climate change almost entirely.

Charts and graphs have their place, but food is the bedrock of human culture, and it should be easy to talk about. We know smart messaging works, too. Americans in any numbers never backed the president’s murmuring about closing the border with Mexico, but once economists predicted “Hard Brexit”-esque shortages of avocados and limes, public opinion galvanized against it further.

It’s not as if other opportunities haven’t arisen, either. After the destructive Midwestern floods last month, Mayor Pete Buttigieg slammed the GOP’s ostrich-like stance on climate change, but he shied away from connecting the catastrophe to the unsustainable emissions U.S. cattle produce. Instead, he landed on the residual romance attached to the disappearing family farm. Granted, loss of life and property — including tens of thousands of animals that simply drowned in their barns — may preclude anyone from adopting a hectoring tone. But it’s undeniable that the livestock were simultaneously a cause of climate change and its victims — and the straight-talking Hoosier polymath certainly recognizes this. Yet Buttigieg squandered an opportunity to take a firm stance on an issue that will only worsen if we ignore it.

There are reasons for this shyness that go beyond first-in-the-nation Iowa and its agriculturally dependent economy. In campaigns past, food and the candidates’ methods of consuming it often became lightning rods. It’s here that we see the true weirdness of American political culture. President Trump, whose penchant for well-done steaks with ketchup led to some meritorious and trolling-free thinkpieces, famously served probably lukewarm fast-food to football teams from Clemson University and North Dakota State. Vulgar all around, yes, but it’s taken as proof of his authenticity, probably the most elastic term in politics after “likeability.”

While “working-class billionaire” might be the most insane contradiction-in-terms our debased political discourse has ever produced, the real sin is how such folksiness doesn’t cross the gender divide or carry over to the other side of the aisle. Hillary Clinton, whether following in Beyonce’s footsteps or not, reportedly carries hot sauce in her purse as if it were the nuclear football, yet she — like Sen. Elizabeth Warren this cycle — took heat for the act of drinking a beer. Sean Hannity tried his mightiest to otherize then-Sen. Barack Obama for requesting spicy Dijon mustard on a hamburger, which was allegedly un-American in a way that John Kerry’s asking for Swiss on a Philly cheesesteak was. (Kerry-Edwards still won Pennsylvania, though.) Farther back, George H.W. Bush was mocked for allegedly marveling at a barcode scanner, an urban legend that stuck. So maybe Cory Booker has gone radio-silent on food insecurity because he’s vegan and someone in his camp believes that could be a terminal liability, like getting busted eating a salad with a comb.

From Chick-fil-A’s homophobia to neo-Nazis adopting Papa John’s after its CEO criticized kneeling NFL players, fast-food is the real flashpoint. When the progressive House freshmen revealed the principles behind the Green New Deal, the response was immediate: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants to take away your hamburgers. Such a knee-jerk response seems over-the-top and insincere, as deliberately dumbed-down and infuriatingly effective as the circa-2009 chatter about “death panels.” It’s also obvious that if anyone was focus-testing possible messages to thwart a national response to climate change, it would be the Beef Council — whose website, beefitswhatsfordinner.com, comes from the stunningly successful 1993 ad campaign of the same name. (In fact, you probably refer to Aaron Copland’s “Hoe-Down” as the “Beef, It’s What’s for Dinner” song.) Trade associations and their lobbyists are powerful — and they are ready. But the reluctance to discuss serious issues via the food Americans eat for fear of playing into the hands of deep-pocketed industry players constitutes a chilling effect on the whole discussion, effectively forfeiting the game.

And progressives need not be the standard-bearers of doom and gloom, because reform will benefit everyone. We know, for instance, that pesticides kill pollinators and warmer oceans full of nitrates and phosphates cause red tides in the red states ringing the Gulf of Mexico. And we now have viable plant-based meat companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods to wean us off our reliance on Black Anguses and Herefords and all the methane in their farts.

Understandably, there is hesitation about backing startups as the path toward salvation. No one wants another Solyndra, distrust in Silicon Valley is broad and growing, and hey, their CEOs could always turn out to be erratic megalomaniacs like Tesla’s Elon Musk. But unless we want “American ingenuity” to become as hollow as “thoughts and prayers,” someone has to seize the moral high ground. Social-media genius AOC was a bartender. Presumably, she spent many afternoons before her shifts slicing lemons and limes into wedges and half-wheels. So she knows better than most members of Congress the risk of inert margaritas and lifeless gin-and-tonics if we don’t make a major course correction soon. Sounds like a pretty good topic for the next Democratic caucus lunch.

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