Martin Luther King said that “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and nowhere is this truth perhaps more evident in today’s United States than in our fundamentally broken food system. That sentiment was at core of the inspiring keynote address presented by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., on the first day of the National Food Policy Conference, held July 28-29th, 2020. This was the 43rd (and first virtual) edition of this event, which is hosted annually by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) for the purpose of bringing together representatives from the food industry, the government and consumer advocacy groups to discuss agriculture, food and nutrition policy.
During his talk, Booker (right) talked about the fact that this nation’s food system is interconnected with all of the main issues this country is currently grappling with, from healthcare to health justice, environmental justice, economic justice and even racial justice. At the same time, he also spoke to which systems need changing and the changes that he sees as imperative to build a more equitable, healthy, economically and environmentally sustainable system for all.
Here are some of the main takeaways from the keynote given by this extremely dynamic, “big bald vegan” (his words), who has partnered with family farmers and communities across the country in an effort to repair our ailing food system.
Failed by the system
“The way we produce and consume food in this country is a matter of life and death, literally.” With these words, Booker began his keynote address with an overview of who and what is being hurt the most by the current U.S. food system.
The first people that he singled out were workers in America, who are being “forced right now to risk their lives to get food onto our plates as they are crowded into the packing plants that have become hotbeds of COVID-19 outbreaks.”
Independent family farmers and ranchers were another, a group that Booker pointed out has declined by more than 1 million family farmers over the last 60 years. Farm debt is partly to blame for this, as well as the fact that farmers’ share of consumer dollars has dropped significantly. Rural communities are also being hit particularly hard, with many residents forced to live in proximity to water, air and soil contamination from large factory farms.
The food system is also horribly broken from a public health perspective, said Booker.
“We currently pour billions and billions of dollars of federal subsidies into a system that is literally making us sick as a nation, [one that has] the worst health outcomes of any industrial nation on the planet. Diabetes, heart disease, and childhood obesity plague our nation at rates not seen by previous generations, as cheap unhealthy foods have become the new normal.” Food insecurity is also an urgent public health crisis, said Booker, with an estimated 14 million children not getting enough to eat while some 30-40% of this country’s food supply goes to waste.
The senator also underlined how the food system has broken down with regard to the treatment of farm animals, once under the care of independent farmers. Meanwhile, unhealthy conditions inside factory farms are at serious risk of causing the next pandemic—not to mention their potential role in creating more antibiotic resistance to “superbugs.” These conditions also highlight the fragility of this country’s food supply chain and how susceptible it is to disruption—as is being demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This, Booker said, makes it an important national security issue.
Policies for change
The main cause of this broken system, said Booker, is corporate consolidation. A prime example of this is the beef industry, in which just four companies control more than 80% of the marketplace. “This is reflective of levels of corporate concentration across our food and farm economy. Large, multinational corporations, because of their size and money, have undue influence over the marketplace, undue influence over public policy and undue influence here in Washington, D.C. And they've created this massive system that benefits primarily themselves, as these multinational corporations are making bigger and bigger profits at the expense of our nation.”
This consolidation is putting the squeeze on independent family farms from all sides, starting from where they get their seeds all the way to retail shelves. Booker’s first steps, therefore, to starting to heal this broken system, have included listening to farmers, ranchers and environmental groups; as well working with animal welfare advocates, health professionals and consumers to “imagine a better food system that reflects our virtues, has common values, addresses a climate crisis, produces more abundant and accessible nutritious food, that pays farmers a fair price for being stewards of the land and that treats workers fairly.”
To further these objectives, Sen. Booker has presented various bills to Congress in recent months, but whether or not they will pass remains to be seen. What is patently evident is the senator’s passion for these issues, one that resonated so clearly through the screen during his keynote address that, even in the conference’s virtual chatroom, one could hear a pin drop.