Farm Bill Will be a Fight Over Food Democracy
An excerpt from the new book, Food Fight
Excerpted from the book Food Fight. To learn more about the Farm Bill and purchase a copy of Food Fight please visit www.foodfight2012.org
Delving into the Farm Bill can seem like visiting another country (if not another planet), with its foreign language and sometimes twisted logic. Specialty crops, for example, are what the USDA calls fruits, vegetables, and nuts — the foods that we are told to eat five to nine servings of each day. ChIMPS describes what happens when budget committees make a “change in mandatory program spending,” taking away the funds that were promised for a program, such as permanently protecting wetlands or providing supplemental nutrition to low-income families. “Direct payments” are the redistribution of tax dollars to landowners, based on the historical harvest records of a property, regardless of whether the land is still being farmed or the owner has suffered income or yield losses. For the average citizen concerned about the food system, rural job creation, and stewardship of the land, it’s a trip that’s more frustrating than inspiring.
I confess, I am a reluctant policy wonk. But these are the issues of our times. If Americans don’t weigh in on the Farm Bill, the agribusiness lobbyists will be more than happy to draft the next one for us as they have done for at least 30 years.
The Farm Bill that passed into law in May 2008 certainly did not give those who care about locally grown food and revitalized regional food systems or protected natural habitats within farming regions much to cheer about. The bill, like its predecessors, primarily insured that very big growers of a select few crops make — or at least don’t lose — money. But the real winners are the commodity cartels, concentrated animal feeding operations, and gasohol producers that purchase corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat, and rice in buyers’ markets. If there was a sea change in ‘08, it was a troubling one. Over 70 cents of every dollar allocated by the Farm Bill now goes to Food Stamps, known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). In dire economic times, approximately 45 million Americans have come to depend on hunger assistance — almost three times the number of just a decade ago. If nothing else, this shocking shift exposes the shortcomings of our national food system, which, in theory, has prioritized making food cheap and plentiful.
Graphic courtesy Watershed Media
The good news? There were incremental improvements, such as programs to enable low-income consumers to shop at farmers markets, help beginning farmers and ranchers, expand the research base of organic farming, and set up new businesses that add value to food by making things like cheese and yogurt or packaged cherries or carrots for school snacks. More money was allocated for conservation programs than at any time in recent history. (However, $500 million was ChIMPed from conservation programs by budget reconcilers in 2011 and $1 billion was stripped in 2012, an all too familiar occurrence.)
To me, the most encouraging development was that more Americans than ever tuned into the Food Bill debate. Erstwhile House Speaker Nancy Pelosi admitted, “The Farm Bill used to be my least-informed vote. Now I know more about it than I ever wanted to know. It’s fascinating.”
The Farm Bill is a tremendous opportunity: used correctly, it can incentivize an agriculture and food system that remedies rather than perpetuates many of today’s problems. There is a groundswell of Americans who already vote with their forks and food dollars. When they also learn to dig in politically, the food fight will begin to be a fair fight. Absent any significant campaign finance reform, I can’t help wondering what it would be like if eaters had their own political action committee or lobbying organization. An Eat Healthy PAC or a Food and Farm Patriots lobbying organization that could press for programs that truly are investments in family farmers, conservation, jobs and affordable, nutritious food for all Americans. What an engine for healthy people, healthy air and water, and healthy economies that might be. It would be subsidization with meaningful social obligation in return.