Why the Farm Bill Matters
By Louisa Kasdon
Food activists call this a special window in time to make sure the 2012 Farm Bill supports an agenda that puts a higher premium on sustainability than it does on the status quo.
Almost no one claims to understand the Farm Bill. It runs 663 pages (in very fine print), with a 14-page table of contents and 15 different titles. Its line items add up to $84 billion a year, funded by the United States taxpayers. (Peanuts compared to the trillion-dollar Defense Bill.) The Farm Bill comes up for re-authorization only once every five years, so whatever is decided this year will affect our food system, our economy and our health until 2017.
Gather any group of food activists and the same two questions come up: What to do about the Farm Bill? And, what exactly is the Farm Bill? It’s the second question that stumps most of us.
What Is the Farm Bill?
It would be hard to be more informed about food politics than Marion Nestle, PhD. Nestle has been one of the eminent national figures researching, writing and speaking about the relationship between food systems and public health for over 30 years. Currently a chaired professor at New York University in the Department of Nutrition and Public Policy, she has written six mainstream books, several of them best sellers including Food Politics, Safe Food and What to Eat (an Amazon top ten best seller).
No mere academic, Nestle has engaged with the U.S. government as well, as the managing editor of the Surgeon General’s 1988 Report on Nutrition and Health, and continues as a senior policy advisor to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Surely, she must know all about the Farm Bill.
“There was all this discussion going on about the Farm Bill and I realized that I actually didn’t understand what was in it!” she says. Nestle’s way to learn about the Farm Bill was to teach a graduate course about the bill. “When I sat down to study it, I was surprised. I found it totally incomprehensible. I can’t hold it all in my head. No one can. Certainly it is incomprehensible to the legislators who vote on it. And that leaves it vulnerable to special interests.”
The Farm Bill isn’t one big bill with an overarching mission, she explains. The Farm Bill is a collection of 15 broad titles that cover everything from Crop Insurance, Conservation and Commodity Programs, to Research, Trade, Nutrition, Forestry and Livestock. There is even a helpful title labeled Miscellaneous. Each title has its own cluster of small provisions. Consider this line item in the Horticulture and Organic Agriculture title, which includes a special provision for “Clementine oranges, Hass avocados, Mushrooms, Honey and Asparagus.” Why those specific foods, we asked Nestle. “Because those foods have lobbyists. Every single grower fights hard to get a bill like that included in the Farm Bill.”
A bitter pill for Nestle is that there is little alignment between the current Farm Bill and the food and health policies that many believe should be on a national healthy food agenda. In her opinion, the current Farm Bill contains too many of the wrong incentives. Agricultural policies such as price supports for large crops like corn, wheat and soy have created both a culture and an agribusiness system that produces an overabundance of calories and processed foods that are connected to the obesity crisis in America.
“With everyone agreeing that half the plate should be fruits and vegetables, shouldn’t we have a farm policy that is linked to our health policy?” Nestle asks. In the current Farm Bill fruits and vegetables are classified as “specialty crops” and the farmers who grow them receive scant support. “As someone who caresabout nutrition and public health, it boggles my mind,” says Nestle.
How Did We Get Here?
First, a little history. The first Farm Bill was written in the 1930s in the era of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, and farmers were losing their farms. America was a largely rural and agricultural nation and the original Farm Bill was meant to be a safety net for farmers that would assure America of a functional agricultural system, and would keep farmers out of foreclosure and on their land. The original bill guaranteed price supports, crop insurance and loans to farmers, among other things, and also put limits on the amount of acreage that could be planted, so that prices would be stable. The practice of paying farmers not to plant dates from that first Farm Bill.
Over the next decades, as American agribusiness grew, the safety net morphed into a set of entitlements and incentives for farmers to grow fewer crops on larger and larger tracts of land. To put in into perspective, in 1900, each farm grew an average of five different crops. By 1960, the crop diversity dropped to one per farm. In the 1930s, virtually every state in the union had counties that were dependent on local farming for food. By the 1960s farming communities were concentrated in a very few Midwestern and Southern states. This concentration of food production created a powerful connection between Midwestern agribusiness and members of the Agricultural Committees. According to Marion Nestle, this link has meant that for decades the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee was the “de-facto secretary of agriculture.”
The Elephant in the Room: Food Stamps
All this might suggest that most of the Farm Bill goes to support farmers. That’s not the case at all. Food stamps––SNAP payments––account for $72 billion of the Farm Bill expenditures, or 84% of the total, dwarfing all other programs. Direct subsidies to large farmers who grow corn, wheat, soy, cotton and such are mere mice when compared to the amount of money in the Farm Bill that goes to feed the big elephant.
Why are food stamps in the Farm Bill? Good question. When hunger went on the national agenda in the 1960s (remember the War on Poverty with those photos of starving children in Appalachia?), it transformed the agricultural payment system. Feeding hungry kids rightly became a national priority. Savvy legislators from the agrarian states and the lobbyists who worked for Big Agriculture realized that by using the political technique of “logrolling” they could trade votes in support of the industrial farming with urban legislators whose constituencies would enthusiastically support an anti-hunger program. What urban legislator wouldn’t want to support a bill that fed our hungry, even if it threw $100 million here and $100 million there to some large-scale farmers?
Says Nestle, “Every single aspect of the Farm Bill is political. Special interests and lobbyists are front and center at every stage in the political process.” Estimates are that farm lobbyists will bill approximately $140 million lobbying during the run-up to the 2012 Farm Bill.
There is reason for optimism. Legislators have noticed that between 2002 and 2011 the number of farmers markets doubled to 7,000, and there are now over 6,000 community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs in America, in virtually every state in the union. There is a national support for using the next Farm Bill to promote healthier, safer, more affordable food for all Americans.
The last Farm bill increased the level of funding for organic farming from $5 million to $125 million. “OK, it isn’t billions,” says Nestle. “But still, it’s going in the right direction. A million dollars is a lot to an organic farmer.”
How to Fix a Broken Food System?
One of the bright beacons for a sustainable food system is Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, a certified organic farmer and a second term Democrat from Maine. One of only two New England members on the House Ag Committee, Pingree has introduced a bill, HR 3286, The Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act.Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is the Senate sponsor and there are over 66 co-sponsors. Reading up on the bill and asking your congressional representatives to support it may be one of the most direct things you can do to impact our food system.
Pingree came to Maine in 1971 with Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life tucked under her arm and went on to study with Eliot Coleman. She founded a farm, raised her kids on it and ran for the Maine state legislature. Today, Pingree and her husband keep their “hands dirty” owning and operating a 200-year-old farm on Maine’s North Haven Island.
Pingree advocates passionately for citizens to get politically invested in changing the food system. “The Farm Bill isn’t only about food. It’s also about American Democracy—voting with your fork. We have a democratic right to demand a food system that promotes our health,” she exhorts. “The market is with us. People want local farms, farmers markets and sustainable food! Not just in Berkeley or Cambridge, but all over the country! ”
Her $100 million Local Food bill is a politically smart compendium that cherry-picks provisions currently scattered in 41 separate programs and nine separate titles in the current Farm Bill and distills them into one understandable bill. The bill is focused on improving support for farmers and ranchers and improving access to healthy, local food for consumers. It attempts to leverage a small amount of federal money for impactful change––for everything from help for beginning farmers, food aggregators, farm infrastructure and the availability local slaughterhouses, to support for school gardens, school lunches and cooking classes.
Pingree is convinced that her congressional colleagues are coming together around changes in the food system. “Even my right-wing colleagues from the agrarian states are questioning the usefulness of price supports and big payments to large commercial farms.” Pingree believes that “2012 represents a special moment. If we miss this moment, it will be another five years before the moment comes again. And by that time, our food system will be even more broken than it is now,” she says, her voice rising. “I believe in the power of many voices. Every one of us should be saying: It’s my country. It’s my food. This is how we make change in America.”
To learn more about the 2012 Farm Bill and what you can do, visit http://sustainableagriculture.net/our-work/local-food-bill/
Louisa Kasdon is the author of more than 500 published articles about food, restaurants, health and business and the winner of the M.F.K. Fisher award for Excellence in Culinary Writing. She is the food editor for the Boston Phoenix/Stuff Magazine and a regular contributor to ZesterDaily.com. Kasdon is the founder and CEO of Let's Talk About Food, www.letstalkaboutfood.com, an events-based organization that bring community and the public together around issues in our food system. She can be reached at Louisa@letstalkaboutfood.com.
Julia Rothman has created illustrations and pattern designs for newspapers, magazines, wallpaper, bedding, books, and subway posters. Her new book Farm Anatomy is an illustrated guide to all the parts and pieces of country life. She lives and works from her studio in Brooklyn, New York.