From the war in Ukraine to the fallout of the Jan. 6 riots, contemporary politics is animated by a large question: Do free societies have a future in an age of tribalism, contempt, disinformation, violence? But the politics of the moment can also be illuminated by small questions: Do you eat fresh spinach? Are you confident it won’t make you very sick?
Awareness that this confidence might be misplaced comes courtesy of my POLITICO colleague, Helena Bottemiller Evich. She is among the nation’s foremost journalists on food policy. She recently published the results of her monthslong, breathtakingly thorough inquiry into systemic failures by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to fulfill its mandate to ensure the safety of what we eat,
The comparatively small question (perhaps not so small if you are the one hunched over the toilet) — Is the FDA doing its job?— is connected in a fairly linear way to the large question that always roils politics: What is the proper size and scope of government? One doesn’t have to squint too hard into this story to see an even bigger question: What is the difference between a liberal democracy like the United States and an authoritarian state like Russia or China?
The difference is that in authoritarian systems there are not journalists like Bottemiller Evich, and people usually don’t ever learn who is getting sick from what and why. But one should not feel too triumphal about this. The reality is that even in this country the muscles of accountability, as exercised by elected representatives and news media, are more atrophied than most people probably realize: The POLITICO story highlighted failures that stretch back decades, with scant publicity and even more scant attention from Congress.
At a time when the work of journalists is under more scrutiny than ever, and the profession itself is undergoing constant upheaval and reinvention, it is worth reflecting on the example of Bottemiller Evich. She’s been covering food policy since 2009, and has been a leader of POLITICO’s agriculture vertical since 2013.
John F. Kennedy once said to his friend John Kenneth Galbraith, who began his storied career as an agricultural economist: “I don’t want to hear about agriculture from anyone but you, Ken. And I don’t want much to hear about it from you, either.”
In truth, the issues around agriculture and food are fascinating when handled by an authoritative narrator. Over the years, Bottemiller Evich has won such prizes as the prestigious George Polk award for her work on food, nutrition and the linkages between agriculture policy and climate change. She has the kind of mastery that only comes from years on the beat. And she reaps the kind of rewards in agenda-setting impact that can’t be earned on cable television sets or long hours on Twitter.