India Understands Health and Agriculture (but the U.S. Doesn't)


AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi

Last week in New Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh kicked off a conference on agriculture and nutrition that I attended with a speech about how his government is focusing on "millets with a high protein, fiber, and mineral content" and on a system for small farmers that's critical to ensuring "nutritional security" in India. From John Kufuor, the former president of the Republic of Ghana, attendees learned about a Grains and Legumes Development Board that supplies seeds to farmers to improve the quality of their produce. And Daniel Balaban, the president of Brazil's National Education Development Fund, referred to the $1.8 billion his country will spend this year on an initiative incorporating homegrown vegetables into a feeding program to nourish some 47 million school kids.

Listening to all that, I couldn't help but think about the U.S. government's policies in regard to food. Just two weeks ago, the United States Department of Agriculture released its new Dietary Guidelines: We'd waited five years to learn that we should eat "less foods" and "cut back on foods and drinks with added sugars." The recent one-year anniversary of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign marked the fact that we are now officially one fifth of the way closer to our major food suppliers "decreasing the amount of sugar, fat, and salt found in school meals" and one tenth of the way closer to doubling the amount of produce served in school meals.

Why is it the leaders of places like India and Ghana can talk about the need for agriculture to incorporate nutrition and health, while my own government can go no farther than to publish a bunch of platitudes?

Why is it the leaders of places like India and Ghana can talk about the need for agriculture to incorporate nutrition and health (not to mention the livelihoods of small farmers), while my own government can go no farther than to publish a bunch of platitudes and vague dietary aspirations? Okay, Michelle Obama gets some credit for focusing attention on the issue of childhood obesity. But 10 years to double the amount of produce in school lunches? Does that mean that by 2020 my now-five-year-old will receive two grapes alongside her Friday hot lunch of pizza and French fries? (By way of contrast: From 2004 to 2008, Brazilian schoolchildren increased their consumption of fruits from 28 to 62 percent, and that of vegetables from 57 to 80 percent.)

Organized by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, or IFPRI, the conference was focused mainly on low-income countries, but the various panels and plenary sessions served mostly to remind me how far we rich people are from getting a clue. New York Times columnist Mark Bittman betrayed no irony whatsoever, for example, when he recently referred in that paper to Michael Pollan's "ground-breaking" slogan "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Of course the issues change as countries achieve different levels of economic success—the Kennedy School's Robert Paarlberg gave a fascinating presentation on the challenges facing governments as their citizens move through different dietary stages—but are we Americans really so out of touch as to believe that the rest of the world wasn't onto these concepts ages ago? (Ingredients in Brazilian school lunch: rice, beans, vegetable oil, salt, meat, tomato, banana.) And that it didn't take reading a 256-page book to get them there?

Obviously there are Americans for whom there's nothing groundbreaking at all about Pollan's proscriptions. They're the same folks who've been clamoring fruitlessly for a Farm Bill that puts an end to the $3 billion our government spends every year on subsidies for corn to fill the bellies of pigs and Peugeots rather than of people; for a fix to an Agriculture Department tasked simultaneously with selling high-fructose corn syrup and exhorting us not to eat it; for increased subsidies for school lunch programs and small-scale farmers who produce food that people actually eat; and for legislation that reins in the marketing of soda and other junk that sabotages our health.

Back in Delhi, the variously-accented conversation returned repeatedly to the question of wealth, and to the difficult choices confronting those governments that lack it. There were references to the corruption endemic to the developing world, and satisfied asides about how our own foreign assistance is predicated on things like transparency and "good governance." But isn't there something a little bit screwy about all of that? Might not a government perfectly aware of the relationship between poor diets and obesity and diabetes and yet stubbornly beholden to the beef and sugar lobbies be accused of its own forms of obfuscation and corruption? (From the more-of-the-same department: Check out Charles Blow's "American Shame" chart in Saturday's New York Times, wherein he shows the United States lagging sorely behind countries like Greece and Slovenia in categories such as food insecurity and income inequality while chiding us for "lying to ourselves about this country.")

When Shenggen Fan, the director general of IFPRI, told the crowd in closing that in order to make real strides in improving nutrition and reducing health risks, "we need to re-imagine agriculture," I thought about President Obama's recent address to the nation. Just before he got to the part about how Americans "do big things," the president asked Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. "I don't know if you've noticed," he said, "but they're doing just fine on their own." Unlike the sweating, panting, size-XXL masses that increasingly populate our nation's towns and cities, so are agricultural giants like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. Which is why it might make sense, when considering his next big thing, for our own developing-country-reared president to think about re-imagining agriculture.