By Joe Romano,
Today, only nine percent of family farm income comes from farming.
— Tom Vilsack, US Secretary of Agriculture
What if thousands of trucks barreled through your hometown every year, drove into your fields, and pumped a mixture of water and chemicals into the ground? Then what if more trucks came back to extract from your soil a product that would be used as a source of polluting energy? What if, in the process, land that once had been used to grow healthy food would be so tainted that healthy crops could not grow there for many years? Would you want that to happen? I am not talking about fracking. I am talking about the process of growing heavily subsidized GMO corn — not for food, but for ethanol.
Do you care about GMOs? The obesity epidemic? Poverty? The plight of farm workers? Organics? The environment? Renewable energy? How about your food?
Every five or so years, a piece of legislation comes around that addresses all of these issues, and nobody pays it any mind. Initially put in place during the Dust Bowl era to help out farmers and the unemployed, the Farm Bill instead has become a handout to major agribusiness. This one bill also determines land-use policy, nutritional guidelines, and environmental issues while enacting what will become the nation's agricultural and food policies for the next five years.
To quote Dan Imhoff, author of Food Fight, a guide to the Farm Bill, you should care about this bill "if you're concerned about escalating federal budget deficits, the fate of family farmers, a food system dominated by corporations and commodities, conditions of immigrant farm workers, the state of the country's woodlands, or the marginalization of locally raised organic food and grass-fed meat and dairy products."
The Farm Bill is how the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) funds all of its many programs relating to food and diet, clothing, textiles and fiber, animal feed, and fuel sourcing.
The Senate version of the bill is 1,150 pages long, costing some $955 billion over 10 years.
The House version is 629 pages long, costing some $939.5 billion over 10 years.
It's apparent that the average person will not read either of these bills, so what is in them?
The Farm Bill decides what ends up on our plates and on our backs and how much it costs. It literally determines what you eat, what is grown in America, and under what conditions. And for many, it decides not only what you eat, but whether you eat at all.
You see, not only does it determine which agricultural industries will receive billions of dollars of farm subsidies, it also decides which will not. Like healthy, natural, and organic food crops.
Up until now, the Farm Bill has primarily focused on two things — food stamps (now known as the SNAP program) and other nutrition programs, and major subsidies and increased crop insurance for a small number of commodity crops, subsidies which go almost entirely to the wealthiest farmers and agribusinesses.
Just recently, House Republicans stripped the Farm Bill of its food stamp provisions. Their logic? They cited costs, waste, and fraud as their reasons to remove the $80 billion federal program from the bill. The food stamp program is flawed, but because of the sequester, without a new Farm Bill, there will be a benefit cut for every SNAP household on top of the recent $21 billion cut. For families of three, the cut will be $29 a month; SNAP benefits will average less than $1.40 per person per meal in 2014. Over the ten years of the proposed Farm Bill this will amount to a $135 billion dollar reduction.
So what about those subsidies? Are they really needed?
The Department of Agriculture recently projected that farm income in 2013 would be $128.2 billion, the highest since 1973, fueled by "record crop production levels" and "high prices for many crops."
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, these farms have greatly improved balance sheets. 2013 was the third year of double-digit increases, the department said, and raised the net worth of many farmers. Why bail out a sector that is booming?
The New York Times reports that "under previous incarnations of the Farm Bill, such subsidies expired every five years unless Congress acted to extend them ... under the new bill the subsidies are permanent."
"It's hard to understand how anyone in the House who calls himself a conservative could support this, but many did," said Chris Chocola, president of the free-market-oriented Club for Growth. "They're locking in historically high commodity prices at taxpayer expense. And maybe the worst is that this is now permanent."
Even Congressman Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, is concerned. "Right now, the federal government favors the big guy over the little guy," he argues. "We subsidize large agribusiness and the wealthy at the expense of the family farmer and the taxpayer." Talk about cost, waste, and fraud.
We should also be concerned about how these subsidies support some of the most unhealthy foods.
Two examples of crops that should not be subsidized, according to Dan Imhoff, are soybeans and corn; the latter is used in the production of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS):
A liquid sweetener with six times the potency and far cheaper than cane sugar, HFCS can also be used to prolong shelf-life, resist freezer burn, create an oven-toasted effect, and other processing functions. Over the past three decades, US consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has jumped 1,000 percent. Soybeans are almost as versatile, providing a cheap and abundant source of added fats in the form of hydrogenated oils that have almost invisibly worked their way into the makeup of nearly every nonproduce item in the modern industrial diet. Dairy and meat products, made from livestock raised in confinement conditions and fed rapid weight-gaining diets of corn and soybeans, are also high in unhealthy fats. The utility and commercial desirability of these ingredients is obvious. Out of nearly 15,000 new food products introduced each year, 75 percent are candies, condiments, breakfast cereals, baked goods, beverages, or dairy novelties.
Along the way the average US citizen's daily food intake has ballooned to nearly 3,900 calories — almost twice the maximum recommended by US health officials. This includes, on average, 32 teaspoons of added caloric sweeteners per day and as high as 1,800 calories in fats.
And of course, the bill subsidizes corn that is grown not for food but to gas cars, extending our dependence on fossil fuels.
Maybe it was the subsidies that should have been stripped from the bill and not the SNAP benefits.
At any rate, the likelihood of a Farm Bill being passed soon is not good, so it gives people time to mobilize and ask for subsidies for small farms growing healthy food instead.
But people don't seem to care. Maybe if people knew that other programs are funded, or not funded, by this bill, including conservation and environment, forestry, renewable energy, research, and rural development they would care more. The House bill slashes spending for conservation and nutrition.
Food co-ops were at the forefront of the movement when the Organic Food act was threatened. It is time for us to speak up again.
Maybe it's just a simple matter of what the bill is called. Maybe they call it the Farm Bill on purpose so that fewer people will pay attention. After all, because agribusiness has so successfully taken over the food market, less than one percent of Americans are farmers.
But everybody eats.
Maybe we should just start calling it the Food Bill.
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