The One Thing Obama Could Have Done to Fix Food—But Didn’t

Recipe wizard Mark Bittman dishes on how the next president could overhaul the system.

<a href=http://www.zumapress.com/zpdtl.html?IMG=20120820_zaa_p138_001.jpg&CNT=28>Pete Souza</a>/Zuma

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Like a huge plow roaring through a prairie, the 2016 presidential election has broken plenty of new ground. We’ve had a national conversation about a nonexistent sex tape involving a former Miss Universe; we’ve debated whether boasting of groping women’s genitals amounts to “locker room talk” or the admission of a crime; and we’ve entertained the idea that one of the major candidates might, if his campaign is successful, have the other one tossed in jail.

 

 

Mark Bittman David Cooper/Zuma

But like nearly every election before it, the current one has been nearly 100 percent free of any debate around the federal government’s massive role in shaping and regulating the food system. To get a grip on the vital food and farm issues we’re not hearing about, I interviewed Mark Bittman, the legendary home-cooking master and pundit. Back in 2015, Bittman stepped away from a four-year stint as an editorial columnist for the New York Times—a forum he used almost exclusively to weigh in on food and farm policy. He remains deeply involved with the topic, though, serving as a fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists Food & Environment Program.

Bittman’s political analysis is as direct and pungent as that classic “Minimalist” dish of his, fried chickpeas with chorizo and spinach. He offered a harsh analysis of how President Barack Obama dealt with food and farm issues, echoing a recent New York Times Magazine piece by Michael Pollan. The current president once “talked a fairly decent game on changing the food system,” Bittman said, “but did virtually nothing in eight years.”

Not everyone agrees, of course. Sam Kass, former White House chef and food policy adviser to the Obamas, had a spicy reaction to Pollan’s story:

Bittman defends Pollan’s criticism of Obama, revealing that there was one “way, way easy” thing the president could have done without congressional interference, but didn’t, to take on the meat industry and protect public health:

Removing antibiotics from the routine use and production of animals is something that there’s precedent for. It’s happened in other countries. It’s something the FDA could have done by mandate; it didn’t need to go through Congress. And it wasn’t done. And I think that was the lowest-hanging fruit imaginable.

Yet Bittman pushed back against Pollan’s notion that Obama didn’t do more to challenge Big Food partially because the “food movement” isn’t powerful or cohesive enough. “Do you want to do the right thing, or do you not want to do the right thing? That’s the question,” he said, adding that Obama shouldn’t have needed a push from anyone to make certain overhauls.

The recipe czar also delivered blunt takes on the possibilities and perils of a Trump or Clinton administration—always with a dash of classic Bittman real-talk. He said he never expected Clinton or Trump to use their candidacies to shine a light on the food system. If Clinton wins, will she take on things like GMO labeling and antibiotics as president? “It sort of depends where her soul is at,” he said. 

“I love Bernie, but what he knows about food comes from the perspective of a Vermont dairy farmer—not big picture, exactly.”

As for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who mounted a surprisingly strong challenge to Clinton in the Democratic primary, Bittman said, “I love Bernie, but what he knows about food comes from the perspective of a Vermont dairy farmer—not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s not big picture, exactly.”

Bite is Mother Jones‘ new food politics podcast. Listen to all our episodes here, or by subscribing in iTunes or Stitcher or via RSS.

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate