Was 2013 a Step Backward for American Food Policy?

This year’s top food policy stories didn’t give us much to smile about.

David King, founder and chairman of the Seed Library of Los Angeles, speaks to activists during a protest against agribusiness giant Monsanto in Los Angeles on May 25, 2013. (Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Jan 6, 2014· 2 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.

It's unlikely that history will look back on the food policy decisions of 2013 kindly. It was a year in which government took steps to make the poor increasingly hungry while simultaneously working to protect the largest of ag corporations.

On the less fortunate end of things, both houses of Congress voted to enact historic cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program at a time when close to 48 million Americans are enrolled in the crucial benefit.

While the exact amount of the cut is still being hashed out between the agriculture committee leadership of the House of Representatives and the Senate, millions of Americans are likely to lose their food stamp benefits as a result. The slashing of SNAP is, far and away, the biggest—and worst—food policy story of 2013, says Dr. William Masters, chair of the Tufts University Department of Food and Nutrition Policy—far more grave than the congressional favors for Monsanto, the ruling against New York City’s proposed ban on large sodas, or state-level wrangling over labeling or restricting genetic crops.

“It was a very sad year in which so many politicians in Congress showed an extreme thoughtlessness—I’d say heartlessness,” Masters said. “They showed a sign of our society that is not something we can be proud of. Shameful. Embarrassing. We’re going to regret it.”

“Seeing the rise in SNAP benefits that happened during the Great Recession as evidence of a society of takers or dependency is tragic,” he added. “It’s a safety net that works.”

How deep the cuts will go is yet to be seen. In September, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would strip nearly $40 billion from SNAP. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., is negotiating a compromise on the final cuts with Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; the Senate passed a bill cutting the benefit by $4 billion.

Wrangling over SNAP resulted in an unprecedented move by the House of Representatives in July: The Republican majority voted to split off the section of the farm bill that deals with food assistance programs so that subsidies and food stamps could be voted on separately.

Masters said the farm bill, which determines policies that affect millions of farmers and hungry Americans, was a far bigger story than a few of the other bits of food news that stole the spotlight in 2013. One of those was a court's reversal of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's controversial ban on large sugary beverages in July. If Bloomberg had his way, New York would have restricted the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages of more than 16 ounces. The court’s decision, however, said the ban “violated the state principle of separation of powers.”

Clear across the country, Washingtonians voted against the labeling of genetically modified foods in November. As was the case with Proposition 37, California's GMO labeling ballot initiative, which was defeated at the polls in 2012, food and agriculture corporations spent millions to defeat the Washington bill, leaving some to wonder whether food giants have become unstoppable.

At no time did this feel more true than in March, when the Senate sneaked a “biotech rider” into a run-of-the-mill spending bill that would require the USDA to approve the harvest and sale of crops from genetically modified seed even if a court has ruled the environmental studies on the crop were inadequate. Nicknamed the “Monsanto Protection Act,” the rider was met with fierce opposition from environmental groups and the public, even prompting a series of marches.

But 2013 proved again that concern over GMOs—which Masters refers to as a “cultural touchstone issue in the broader question of whether we control our food supply in a responsible and sustainable manner”—is not going away.

Was there any good news in the world of food policy this year? Yes, but not much, according to Masters. He points to the recent trans fat ban by the Food and Drug Administration as the feel-good food policy story of 2013.

“That was a big step forward for the federal government to use the scientific evidence in a responsible way to protect the public,” he said.

If only we could get Congress to protect the hungriest among us too.