Last month at Slow Food Nation, Michael Pollan made an interesting point about food policy and presidential politics. Food issues won’t likely play much of a role during the campaign’s stretch run, Pollan said, but the winning candidate will almost certainly be forced to confront them directly over the next four years.

That’s because burgeoning crises in climate, energy, and health care can no longer be ignored — and food policy plays a central role in all three, Pollan said.

I wish I shared his optimism about politicians’ willingness to confront dire situations, but his point is well-taken. Food has indeed been largely forgotten in the 2008 presidential campaign, but it may well be a major issue in its aftermath. Given that reality, what do we know about the major candidates’ policies on food?

So far, campaign 2008 has been dominated by “Palinology” and the tragicomedy of Wall Street’s meltdown, but the candidates (or at least their advisers) have offered hints about their attitudes toward food policy. McCain:

Food Maverick?

John McCain’s “Prosperity for Rural America” document offers much to please the agribusiness lobby. In it, the GOP candidate vows to limit the “unnecessary intervention of government regulations that severely alter or limit the ability of the family farm to produce efficiently.” Despite the heartening reference to the “family farm,” that statement is probably a coded promise to maintain comically lax oversight of confined-animal feedlot operations and their titanic output of toxic waste.

McCain also pledges to ram open foreign markets to U.S. farm goods — another topic dear to agribusiness. “John McCain believes that globalization is an opportunity for American agriculture,” the statement declares. A McCain administration would “engage in multilateral, regional, and bilateral efforts to reduce barriers to trade, level the global playing field, and vigorously defend the rights of American agriculture.”

On a couple of key points, McCain diverges from the traditional farm-lobby script. He’s a longtime critic of federal support for ethanol production (save for occasional lapses during the GOP primary season, when at times he seemed to embrace the corn-based fuel). Many sustainable-agriculture advocates, including me, see the various federal programs that boost ethanol production as a force for intensifying industrial agriculture’s grip over the nation’s most productive farmland — essentially, $5 billion per year in taxpayer support for the worst kind of farming.

In his rural document, McCain awkwardly tries to stake out a middle ground on the ethanol question. “I won’t support subsidizing every alternative or tariffs that restrict the healthy competition that stimulates innovation and lower costs,” he declares. Even so, “I’ll encourage the development of infrastructure and market growth necessary for these products [i.e., ethanol] to compete, and let consumers choose the winners.”

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