Presidents Gone Green: Presidential Contributions to Our Food System

Our 45 chief executives have dealt with environmental issues from the beginning, including improving our food system - and the water and energy systems our food depends on. (And of course, as you'll see, "improvement" has been an evolving concept throughout our history.) But we've also had plenty we can celebrate and be proud of. Take a look back at nine of our greenest-minded presidents, including our recently-departed former president, Barack Obama.

Thomas Jefferson (Term: 1801 - 1809)

Of all of the wealthy, white, slave-owning men cast as our "Founding Fathers," the irreconcilable ideas of Thomas Jefferson are probably the most fascinating.  Just as it's disturbing that Jefferson wrote The Declaration of Independence while simultaneously holding slaves, it's hard to think of the man who idealized a country of small farms as the same who unfortunately laid the foundations of Big Ag's approach to agriculture.

Jefferson's inherent trust in the value of expansion and small government ultimately led to the major problems of today's food system. For instance, he instituted the grid system for the Louisiana Purchase that parceled out land to make it easily commoditized, but didn't take geography into consideration. His trust in the scientific method is admirable, but as a gentleman farmer he was adamant that using non-native plants was key. While he would probably be devastated by our current food system's vast consolidation of power and the miniscule number of farmers per capita, he unwittingly set it in motion.

Abraham Lincoln (Term: 1861 - 1865)

In the midst of Civil War, Abraham Lincoln took large strides in support of farmers, agricultural education and conservation during his presidency. He was a believer that free and educated farm workers, as opposed to paid and slave labor, made for a stronger nation. Just months before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in fall 1862, Lincoln established the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to empower farmers at the national level and signed the Morrill Land Grant College Act, which provided states with public land for colleges of engineering and agriculture. Although most US citizens farmed at that time, resources for farming education and research were limited. Lincoln also supported the creation of the National Academy of Sciences, which would go on to bolster environmental protection efforts, and signed the Yosemite Grant preserving the first federally protected parkland for public use, setting a precedent for the creation of today's national parks.

Theodore Roosevelt (Term: 1901 - 1909)

Contrary to popular belief, our larger-than-life 26th president did not found the National Park system, but he did found the national Wildlife Refuge Service and the US Forest Service, and established 51 federal bird reservations, 150 national forests, five national parks and 18 national monuments - preserving about 230 million acres of public land, an area equivalent to the entire eastern seaboard, from Maine to Florida. He didn't found Yellowstone National Park either, but he did help protect it from corporate interests, mostly coal and other mining companies, which sought to exploit it. As an asthmatic, near-sighted youth in New York City, Roosevelt dreamed of being a naturalist and learned taxidermy - by the age of 11 he was already donating specimens to the American Museum of Natural History. Early in adulthood, he pursued and then abandoned political pursuits in the east to raise cattle in South Dakota, where he witnessed firsthand the near extinction of America's bison population. In 1885, he served as president of the Little Missouri Stockmen Association, whose mission was to enforce ranching rules and regulations.

Some would argue that Roosevelt was a conservationist motivated by his love for hunting and his desire to maintain pristine wilderness specifically for use by citizens, not an environmentalist per se, but to be sure, many a young environmentalist is inspired by trips to the wild lands he set aside.

Woodrow Wilson (Term: 1913 - 1921)

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president, was a Progressive Movement leader who saw the United States through World War I. Wilson's greatest environmental achievement was presiding over the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, perhaps the world's best example of large-scale institutional land preservation. The new federal bureau, housed in the Department of the Interior, was initially responsible for 35 national parks and monuments, and now protects 400 areas and over 84 million acres in 50 states and US territories. Wilson also drove passage of the Smith-Lever Act through Congress in 1914, a bill that launched cooperative extension services in conjunction with land-grant universities to spread agriculture and energy information and instruction throughout the local communities.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Term: 1933 - 1945)

FDR took office in the nadir of the Great Depression, a profound socioeconomic and environmental crisis. The Dust Bowl's first wave came in 1934. During the "Dirty Thirties" three waves of drought blew away topsoil from more than 100,000,000 acres of land in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. Decades of deep plowing on the Great Plains had removed native, deep-rooted grasses holding the rich soil in place. Making matters worse, seven-eighths of America's original forests had been cut down by the 1930s.

During the dizzying first hundred days of FDR's presidency as a part of the New Deal, the administration created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which sent thousands of men out to plant trees and restore wetlands and ponds; he enacted the controversial, portentous Agricultural Adjustment Act, which paid farmers to not plant crops and reduce sizes of herds in order to eliminate agricultural surpluses and raise commodity prices. It succeeded, raising farm incomes by 50 percent by 1935, but rewarded larger-scale farming - it was the beginning of Big Ag. By 1935, the program had rolled into the new Farm Security Administration, which collected personal stories and photos to document rural life. 1933's new Tennessee Valley Authority sought to control rivers and electrify the impoverished area, mainly with dams. As with agricultural reform, with economic improvements for some came longer-term environmental concerns and policy implications. (The US government still owns the TVA, the largest public utility, today.)

For more on FDR (and his cousin Teddy), watch Ken Burns' excellent 2014 documentary The Roosevelts: An Intimate History.

Richard Nixon (Term: 1969 - 1974)

Richard Nixon is generally credited with establishing the Clean Water Act but the story is more complicated than that. (Isn't it always?) Nixon was all for the idea of clean water but he felt the responsibility (and funding) for it fell squarely on state and local authorities. When Congress passed the bill in 1972, Tricky Dick waited until 40 minutes before the bill would have become law without his signature to veto it, saying that it was just too expensive. Congress was onto his wily ways, though, and overwhelmingly overrode the veto that same night. The bill became law on October 18, 1972.

Jimmy Carter (Term: 1977 - 1981)

Although it's been said that Jimmy Carter is "widely considered a better man than he was a president" when it came to the environment, he may have been one of the most forward thinking and progressive commanders-in-chief. Assuming office in the middle of an unprecedented national energy crisis, the Former peanut farmer responded with the creation of the first Department of Energy and a comprehensive national energy policy that promoted clean and alternative fuels. To help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, Carter implemented the "corporate average fuel economy" (CAFE) standards (later rolled back by Reagan) that helped raise fuel efficiency in American cars and caused fuel imports from the Persian Gulf to fall by 87 percent. He even tried to inspire Americans to reduce their energy needs at home by famously installing solar water heating panels on the White House (Reagan removed those, too) and setting the mansion's thermostats at 68 degrees. But his environmental policy accomplishments are not just limited to the energy sector. Carter also oversaw passage of important laws focused on environmental protection like the Superfund Act, The Endangered American Wilderness Act, the Soil and Water Conservation Act and the Antarctic Conservation Act.

Bill Clinton (Term: 1992 - 2000)

Before his reelection in 1996, President Clinton signed the Sustainable Fisheries Act and effectively ended an era in which US fisheries were managed like an ever-dwindling gold rush. Instead, fisheries managers now set catch targets based on a "maximum sustainable yield." Since the act went into effect, 27 once-depleted fish stocks have rebounded thanks to a partnership of scientists, managers and fishermen. That's a big success, but of course the act has not been a magic bullet for all fisheries. However for seafood lovers, Clinton's signature means that we at least know that buying fish caught in US waters is likely a sustainable choice.

Barack Obama (Term: 2008 - 2016)

President Barack Obama entered the presidency with high expectations of doing a good job of protecting the environment. However, his environmental legacy could be determined without a single major environmental law being passed during his two terms. Blocked by a polarized Congress, President Obama used the authority of the Clean Air Act of 1970 to "issue a series of landmark regulations on air pollution, from soot to smog, to mercury and planet-warming carbon dioxide." There have been challenges to these regulations, with more on the way. So far, the Supreme Court justices have upheld the regulations in three cases but may yet rule against others. Just how green was President Obama? For different perspectives, check out this Politico Magazine piece.

We also have to give a shoutout to Michelle Obama, who was a leader in many important food areas, like school lunch reform, childhood nutrition and menu labeling standards - not to mention the beloved White House garden. Here's to hope that the new administration won't roll back the progress made in these areas in the last 16 years. (At least we get to keep the White House garden!)

With contributions by James Saracini, Robin Madel, Kai Olson-Sawyer, James Rose, Gabrielle Blavatsky, Peter Hanlon and Leslie Hatfield. 

This post was originally written in February 2015, and updated in February 2017.