Our Food System Is Forked Up: Why the Farm Bill Matters
Unraveling the Farm Bill—the unwieldy set of laws and policies Congress passes every five or so years to govern American agriculture—is no simple task. It is a tangle of contradictory policies, programs with crazy acronyms, and dollar figures that boggle the mind. But the more you tug at that string, the clearer it becomes that the Farm Bill is attached to just about everything: poverty, agribusiness, environmental conservation, rural development, human health, corporate consolidation, foreign trade, and, most importantly, food.
The Farm Bill is rooted in the Great Depression when desperate farmers overplanted their way into the Dust Bowl and 1 out of every 3 Americans was unemployed. Central to the New Deal, the Agricultural Adjustment Acts of the 1930s launched visionary programs to promote soil conservation, provide a financial safety net for farmers, and enhance food security.
The challenges of today’s food production are a world apart, however, and the Farm Bills of the modern era aren’t helping. Six million family farms have been whittled down to just over 2 million. Most of the agricultural output is produced by 300,000 very large commercial farm operations that leverage huge amounts of capital and technology to compete in global markets. Conservation incentives and market supply controls have given way to maximizing crop yields. Loans that helped struggling small-scale farmers have been replaced by cash subsidies that favor giant operators. The average age of an American farmer is 57. And agribusiness lobbyists generally write the Farm Bills.
Ironically, Americans are both hungrier and heavier than ever before. Nearly 80 percent of all Farm Bill dollars spent during the last five years went to food stamps and other nutrition programs. One of every seven people receives food stamp benefits, yet two-thirds of Americans are now classified as either overweight or obese. We’re eating too much of the wrong things. It’s a crisis at least partially traceable to the types of foods that Farm Bill policies have made cheapest and most readily available. The majority of crops we subsidize are fed to cattle, processed into refined grains, sweeteners, and industrial food ingredients, or distilled into ethanol. Fruits, nuts, and vegetables on the other hand—“specialty crops” in Farm Bill parlance—get relatively little support at all.
The current Farm Bill is due for renewal by September 30, and there is a groundswell of popular support for many positive reforms that could reshape this bill to make America’s food system fairer and healthier. Platforms include helping family farmers, boosting local and organic food production, improving access to healthy foods, and restoring watersheds inundated by agrochemicals and animal waste. Unfortunately the specter of severe spending cuts looms over this year’s debate. Many such programs have no budget allocated after 2012. It’s unclear whether they will survive in the next Farm Bill.
Most voters probably don’t think much about the Farm Bill. The name itself suggests it’s something that doesn’t touch the lives of city-dwellers. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is our Food and Farm Bill, and it is arguably the single most important legislation your representatives will consider this summer.
A bad Farm Bill will mean continued giveaways to the nation’s largest industrial farms and animal factories, while slashing the programs that fight hunger, promote health, and protect natural resources. A good Farm Bill, on the other hand, can help to rebuild our food and farming systems from the ground up by investing in stewardship, local and organic food production, the next generation of farmers and ranchers, and sound nutrition.
I’ve been fighting for a better food system for years and I’d love your help. If you want to get involved, here’s how.