5 Ideas to Change the Food Network

If only the last paragraph of Mark Bittman’s New York Times Op/Ed on the word “Foodie” were small enough to fit on a bumper sticker.

A classically Bittmanian call to action, the piece urges readers to “realize that buying into the current food “system” means exploiting animals, people and the environment, and making ourselves sick.” With the recent, and much belated, creation of a good-food Super PAC (a powerful type of political action committee which may raise unlimited funds to promote an issue) founded by Chef Tom Colicchio of Top Chef fame, advocates of changing the food system have a voice—and a chance—in 2014’s midterm elections.

Known as Food Policy Action, Colicchio’s group last month presented its first awards to the two Senators who voted 100 percent in line with good-food interests according to its scorecard. (Interestingly, both recipients are statewide electees from Alaska—a state currently known for both its pure food and its conservative governors.) Food law and policy are begging for change. Hacking our complex food network can begin with the five ideas below, all of which are hot issues for this fall’s debates:

Genetically modified rice plants are individually labeled with a barcode and transponder in the greenhouses at CropDesign. Photograph courtesy BASF

Genetically modified rice plants are individually labeled with a barcode and transponder in the greenhouses at CropDesign. Photograph courtesy BASF

1. Allow states to require labeling of GMOs. Even without the discussion over whether crops containing genetically modified organisms are better are worse than traditional crops, GMO labeling is now a public trust issue. If people see their government flat-out banning food from being truthfully labeled, confidence that food institutions could possibly serve the people will erode.

Anthony Micheli and daughter Scarlett stand ready to sell their vegetables at a Texas Farmers Market.

Anthony Micheli and daughter Scarlett stand ready to sell their vegetables at a Texas Farmers Market. Photograph courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture

2. Ease regulatory barriers for small farmers. As more consumers rely on USDA labels such as “organic” as shorthand for good food, programs easing cost and other barriers for small farmer certification are crucial for their survival. Small farms sustain local food systems and close-in urban agriculture, which are vital for national food security if large farms and central food supplies were attacked.

Photo of watermelon Oreo cookies.

Photograph by Flickr user TheFoodJunk

3. Tax food that costs the system money. Fruit should cost less than froot-filled cookies. Taxing is complicated but as a basic rule, society taxes that which we want to discourage. Food that drains the system—in increased health care costs, lost wages, and environmental damage—should compensate the system.  The increased cost also forces people to internalize the actual cost of their food choices.

Photo of fruits.

Photograph by Jeremy Cherfas

4. Subsidize food that benefits the system. The other side of taxing, but an independent issue with its own battle, providing money to lower the cost of food that encourages health gives positive incentive for a better food structure.

Photo of a kid eating.

Photograph by Eric Martin

5. Feed kids well and responsibly. You know that feeling when you’re in a meeting, trying to concentrate, and you just ate a less-than-nourishing meal? Kids are the same. After all the work we put into building schools, training teachers, testing, and creating standards, let’s put more into feeding them a lunch that gives them a chance to use those resources. And in the process, the potential buying power of one meal per weekday for 50 million students can be a huge influence on how the food system operates. My personal hope is a step further: more funding to feed every kid school lunch globally, as envisioned by former Senators George McGovern and Bob Dole.

Toss these ideas around even if you’re not a “foodie.” Test the waters for the 2014 election. Because regardless of which side you embrace, 2016—and a new president—are closer than you think.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.