Food policy could go backward under Farm Bill

Green Acre Radio: As the nation suffers a serious drought, Congress is working on a farm bill that turns away from the underlying issues of sustainability and good health.
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A July 20 map of drought areas and corn-producing farms.

Green Acre Radio: As the nation suffers a serious drought, Congress is working on a farm bill that turns away from the underlying issues of sustainability and good health.

As the nation focuses on the economy, the presidential race, immigration, and most recently, the worse drought in half a century; a critical piece of legislation about the food you eat is being debated in Congress. 

Customers check out tomatoes, cherries, greens and grass fed beef at a local farmer’s market. Consumer demand for chemical free food is on the rise. But it’s not clear if legislators debating the new farm bill — some say it should be called the food bill — are listening.

Click here to listen to first half of the audio version of this story, which was originally presented as a two-part series on KCBS radio. Click here to listen to the second part of the audio version of this story.

At the farmer's market, I ask customers: Are you familiar with the farm bill? Do you think it supports the produce you just bought here? I get these different responses.

"Are you kidding me? No. I would like to have much more support for the farms that are really serving to nurture the environment."

"I must confess I’m not familiar with it. But my expectation is that it would."

"I think the farm bill supports the ADMs [Archer Daniels Midland] of the world and big corporations.” 

Every five years, a $90 billion per year tax bill for food, feed, fiber, fuel, and conservation is debated in Congress. The Farm Bill determines what crops will be subsidized, what foods will be plentiful and cheap and whether the meat we eat comes from mega-farms or family farms.

John Fawcett-Long with the Northwest Farm Bill Action Group says the bill needs to come out of the closet. “We need to bring it into the common conversation and realize that people can make change and need to demand change. That this is more like a food system we want.”  Fawcett-Long points to the bustling farmer’s market. “As opposed to putting hundreds of billions of dollars into an agriculture that’s dominated by monoculture, heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides which affects our groundwater, which affects our rivers.”

Written during the Great Depression in 1933 to provide farmers financial support and deal with the soil erosion crisis, the Farm Bill, says Fawcett-Long has morphed into a commodity subsidy program. Corn, cotton, wheat, soybeans and rice receive 84 percent of all subsidies. “And guess who benefits from that. Just a few mega agri-business corporations — Sara Lee, Con Agra, Archer Daniels Midland.” 

Jim Kleinschmidt, with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, says farmers who grow fruit and vegetables receive some support, but it pales compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars commodity crops receive whether they thrive or fail. What concerns him about the Farm Bill under debate is the lack of attention to what farmers could be doing to mitigate climate change. ‘”And right now it’s forefront in my mind with the great drought that’s spreading across the country,” Kleinschmidt says. Ninety percent of the food, water, energy, fiber and minerals the country relies on are rural lands.

“Those are the areas that are going to be biggest victim of climate change yet we know that farming done right can be one of the parts of the solution by taking the problem, that carbon dioxide that’s in the atmosphere, and putting it back into the soil.” It’s a simple and elegant solution, says Kleinschmidt. “Small farmers have always done this, this is what crop rotations have been about. It’s about building the soil, building organic matter, building the nutrient base there, not through fossil fuel based fertilizers but through natural systems and natural crop rotations.” Farmers experimenting with deep rooted crops and switch grasses have shown they fare well during low and high water times.

Instead the new Farm Bill is doubling down on crop insurance and risk mitigation for failed commodity crops, which may cost taxpayers up to $40 billion a year. “If we’re going to provide financial risk mitigation to farmers wouldn’t it seem appropriate to ask them to do what they can to actually reduce the risk of a failed crop for all of us?" Kleinschmidt asks. "We think that’s not a big ask for farmers for what they get in return.” 

 A version of the farm bill passed by the House Agriculture Committee last month cuts more than $6 billion from environmental programs, offers no support for farmers to grow crops that can withstand climate change, and strips the EPA’s ability to regulate pesticides. John Fawcett-Long with the Northwest Farm Bill Action Group says it’s critical that people contact their representatives. “We have to fight this battle, keep the pressure on," Fawcett-Long says. "With this Farm Bill we just need to keep growing the movement to get people introduced, take it out of the closet and say this affects you and the food you eat.” The 2012Farm Bill is expected to be taken up by the full House and Senate after the August recess. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, agribusiness spent an estimated $120 million in lobbying this year, with American Crystal Sugar, the biggest contributor.

Crops struggling to survive in the nations worst drought in half a century are the subject of hot debate this summer But little attention has been given to the practice of monoculture farming or growing a handful of crops year after year in the same fields and how the practice is reinforced by federal policy under the Farm Bill.

Push a cart down the aisle of a grocery store and see if you can find one of the most prominent foods in the Farm Bill under debate in Congress.  In its basic form, you’ll find it among the fruits and vegetables, a sure sign summer has arrived. But in its industrial and processed forms, it’s harder to identify. Farmers decry the plague of this crop, the falling prices, the droughts, the floods. But agribusiness hails its power; it’s ability to fatten cattle in feedlots for the country’s meat consumption and use as a sweetener in cereal, fruit juices, salad dressing, yogurt, chicken nuggets. Guess what it is? Sweet corn — at times called king corn but also “the welfare queen.”

Iowa corn farmer George Naylor has been growing corn for 35 years. He’s been fighting for a farm policy that favors small farms and diversified agriculture for most of his farming life. But he recognizes the power of corn. “You could pick any other plant on the planet and there’s no way it would come close to producing protein, carbohydrates and oil like corn does. It’s basically animal feed but there’s no other plant that can produce that kind of animal feed.”

It was 97 degrees in Iowa when we spoke on the phone, down five degrees from the previous day. Corn stalks were burning up on some farms, Naylor said: “My soil is very heavy and deep and so the corn it’s just barely hanging on but its losing its yield potential every day.” Crop insurance will cover his losses, and more significantly the losses of the food giants who buy cheap corn, but there’s no doubt, farm policy is flawed, he says.

When crops fail during droughts or floods, the country has no grain reserves to bring to the market.  “In the free market whatever you produce this year is supposed to be put on the market and the market is supposed to clear it by making the price go low.” It’s a disaster for farmers as well as consumers, says Naylor, and only encourages new uses for corn such as high fructose corn syrup. “Or making ethanol or expanding big huge feedlots," he adds. "And now, on the other hand, when Mother Nature says, 'Whoa, you’re not going to produce very much this year,' it’s going to just drive the price up sky high.”

Dan Imhoff, author of Food Fight The Citizen’s Guide To A Food and Farm Bill, says the country needs to stop rewarding over-production of corn and soybeans and start rewarding conservation with the planting of permanent ground cover. “That would sequester carbon and it would become an asset to farmers to move toward a gradual perenialization of the landscape which in my mind and which in many of our top biologists is really the direction we have to go.”

Imhoff says the food system and farm bill remain stuck in 20th century manufacturing models. The Farm Bill draft ignores climate change and cuts conservation money. The philosophy, Imhoff says, is: "Grow as much as you possibly can for the least possible cost rather than really have an integrated system where you make sure you’re not taking too much from the land at any one time and you’re also growing a diversity of crops that really fit the place where that agriculture is taking place.”  An integrated system, says Imhoff, would better protect people who are hungry. “And then really it has some kind of sane income based program where we’re helping farmers with a real safety net but not just shoveling cash out the door that capitalizes these huge mega farms, which I think people are increasingly against.”

But changing the farm bill and the industrial food system it’s based on will take a huge citizen uprising, he says. “If you don’t have a PAC, can’t put hundreds of millions of dollars into the political process and influence it like the corn growers and the soybean association and the pork producers basically writing this bill ..., citizens have to get very quickly aware of just what’s at stake and make their calls.”

Frustrated with current drafts of the Farm Bill, Imhoff, author Anna Lappe, Will Allen with Growing Power, and others wrote an open letter to Congress saying the bill was seriously out of step with reforms needed to come to grips with the nation’s critical food and farming challenges. Non-profits engaged in the food fight include the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, National Family Farm Coalition, and the NW Farm Bill Action Group.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin

Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District. Green Acre Radio was born shortly afterward. Her work is currently supported by the Human Links Foundation. She was one of the founding reporters for Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact.