Food Activism’s Libertarian Streak

Can political opposites come to the table…around food?
When it comes to food, many activists have a decidedly Libertarian bent. (Photo illustration: Courtney Neimann)
May 22, 2012· 3 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Is the food movement Libertarian? Listen to many farmers and food activists talk, or read through the comments on many stories we post on our Facebook page, and it’d be easy to get that impression.

For instance, on a piece last week about farm-to-school programs, comments ranged from “keep government out of our food” to “end all subsidies!” to “next, they’re coming for your home-packed lunches.” Comments on a post about the debate over raw milk were equally Libertarian: the consensus, at least among Facebook commenters, appeared to favor Americans’ rights to consume what they want.

Libertarian sentiments run throughout the food movement, from criticism of federal subsidies that unfairly favor certain commodities over others, to bans on certain food, to a general distrust of the link between the federal government and large food producers. For organizations like Keep Food Legal, which fights food regulations and bans, this is good news.

“People on the left and right and in between have a variety of views on any number of issues,” says Baylen Linnekin, executive director of Keep Food Legal. “But when it comes to food, they tend to be united in the idea that it’s up to them and families for what they should be eating. A lot of people realize that the government and corporations are working hand in hand in keeping them from being free to make those choices.”

Linnekin goes on to describe a libertarian (small “L”) movement—which in recent years has been fueled by the early Tea Party rallies and by popular figures like Ron Paul—that is definitely more concerned with food than it used to be.

In fact, Reason Magazine, a Libertarian publication, recently tapped Linnekin to write a weekly food column for its website, Linnekin has already interviewed Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, who was profiled in Food, Inc., about his own Libertarian practices, from farming successfully without federal subsidies to his views on food freedom.

Salatin, a self-described “Christian-conservative-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic,” is not alone in his belief that too often, the powers that be—which form a “corporatocracy,” as some Libertarians call it—prevent Americans from eating what we want. Sit down with almost any farmer, and he or she will dish on how increased regulations and government intrusion has complicated efforts to grow and distribute foods that people want.

While most liberal food activists will agree up to that point, where many fall off the wagon is in determining where, exactly, government should step in to support small farmers, promote healthy food choices, prevent foodborne illnesses, make sure all Americans have enough good food to eat, and regulate industry. Liberals are more likely to favor the so-called “safety net” food programs—like SNAP and W.I.C—that help feed millions of low-income families.

Many Libertarians draw the line for government intervention at inspection and preventing consumers from being defrauded. Linnekin says these are the building blocks of food legislation in the nation’s founding documents. The government oversteps its boundaries, he says, when it dabbles in the “new public health”—which has resulted in bans on trans fats and raw milk, among other things.

As for access to healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods, Linnekin points to a combination of a market response to consumer demand (i.e., some just want to buy and eat cheap, processed foods) and a federal crop subsidy program that disadvantages the production of healthy food. Even many health and food safety regulations, Linnekin contends, “never favor the little guy.”

“Well-meaning people on the left sometimes have difficulty wrapping their head around this,” he says. “Many people believe that more food safety regulations will help consumers; meanwhile, these regulations end up pushing out choices.”

Ron Paul, who grew up on a dairy farm in Texas, has been a fierce advocate for personal freedom and even introduced legislation to overturn an FDA ban on the interstate transporting of raw milk. But some say Libertarian politicians like Paul and Johnson, the Libertarian presidential nominee, should talk more about food freedom, a sentiment many Americans seem to share.

The Daily Paul blog published a post earlier this month criticizing Paul for failing to reach out to food-centric Obama voters who expected the President to deliver on a campaign promise to push for labeling on genetically modified foods. (Instead, the blogger points out, Obama hired a former Monsanto executive as his “food czar.”) The Libertarian perspective, proponents contend, may be just the right answer to many food activists’ concerns—even some on the left. From the post:

The people have a right to know what is in their food. The people have a right to grow, eat, sell, purchase, or exchange whatever foods they wish. Restoring the quality of food available to Americans is crucial to any plan to restore the country and a concern for millions of Americans. I consider it a tremendous missed opportunity that Doctor Paul does not specifically mention food freedom at the campaign site, nor in his speeches.

For Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico who earned the Libertarian party’s nomination for president earlier this month, food issues are immensely personal: he has celiac disease, caused by a reaction to eating gluten. The diagnosis, which came just two and a half years ago, changed more than just Johnson’s diet—it changed his entire perspective on food. He says that while it’s not government’s role to make decisions for people when it comes to food, the office of president does comes with a “bully pulpit” that can be used to educate the American people on making healthier choices.

“People have no ideas how big a role food plays in their well-being,” he says. “I just think we’ve become anesthetized to what we eat, that we are what we eat.”

At this point, food has yet to emerge as a hot campaign topic. Whether or not that will change hinges largely on politicians’ willingness to drag the topic out into the public conversation. If that happens, expect some unlikely alliances to form and improbable table fellowship to be had.