Opinion Editorial: the Farm Bill We Need

Opinion Editorial: the Farm Bill We Need

A New Vision for Food, Farming and Agriculture

By Gene Baur and Mia MacDonald

Traditionally, summer is when farmers reap the harvest from the land. This summer there’s been a different kind of harvesting going on, far from the fields. Agribusiness has been “farming the government” by seeking billions of dollars in subsidies from Congress through the 2007 Farm Bill. In bars and backrooms near the U.S. Capitol, lobbyists have pushed for the same policies—and payouts—that have destroyed family farms, harmed the environment, threatened consumer health, and subjected billions of farm animals to intolerable cruelty. If ultimately they succeed, the harvest will be bitter, and not just for farmers.

What’s in the farm bill influences how our food is produced and what we eat. It determines the shape of rural communities, and the quality of our water and air. Its provisions have a crucial impact on whether Americans live in vibrant food sheds or barren food deserts, and influence our health as individuals and as a nation.

One thing is certain: this year’s bill will be the last hurrah for corporate agribusiness. Public tolerance for huge farm subsidies is waning, while awareness of the downsides of the standard American diet is increasing. Concern is growing about conditions for billions of farmed animals and how U.S. crop subsidies affect poor farmers overseas. And on a host of environmental measures—from climate change to loss of topsoil and runoff of chemical residues and wastes to destruction of watersheds—current farm policy simply isn’t sustainable.

Over the past generation, farm bills have catered to the interests of a small slice of the farming community—large industrial operations. Each year billions of dollars in subsidies are provided to producers of just a few crops, namely wheat, corn, grain, sorghum, barley, oats, cotton, rice, soybeans and other oilseeds. Much of the harvest is converted into cheap food for farmed animals or corn syrup, a near-ubiquitous sweetener for food and drinks.

Only about one–third of America’s farmers grow crops eligible for traditional farm subsidies. The rest, including 90 percent of minority farmers, who produce fruits, vegetables, and other products, receive no assistance at all.

What ends up on our plates is also a result of farm policy. Diets high in sugars and animal fats have led to rising levels of obesity as well as chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes and some cancers. Americans spend $110 billion on low-cost fast food every year, its low price made possible by farm bill subsidies. But more is spent treating obesity-related health conditions: $117 billion a year, according to the American Heart Association.

As the agriculture sector has consolidated, rural communities have been depopulated. The loss of small farms has coincided with an increase of large, corporate operations that raise and slaughter thousands, even millions, of cows, pigs, and chickens every year.

These “factory farms” release enormous amounts of waste and toxins into the air (the stench can be extreme and is often unavoidable) and water, and contribute significantly to global warming. The animals are kept in cramped, indoor quarters without the ability to move freely or express their natural behaviors.

In the face of these realities, many environmentalists, anti-poverty groups, nutrition experts, mothers, faith communities, and advocates for the poor, immigrants and farmed animals, among others, have begun to question the assumptions of U.S. farm policy. What they and we envision is legislation that:

· Puts priority on family farms and reverses the consolidation of agriculture by ending subsidies for industrial feed crops like corn;
· Encourages small farmers who produce fruits and vegetables, including organic growers, through technical assistance, training and loan and credit programs;
· Takes the welfare of farmed animals seriously by stopping cruel production practices that are now the norm and drafting and enforcing national animal welfare regulations;
· Expands the availability of fresh, healthy food to all Americans, regardless of income, age or social or geographic status, by making it easier for food stamp recipients and the elderly to access farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture programs. Schools should receive additional funds to buy locally grown vegetables and fruits for breakfast and lunch programs, and
· Protects and restores critical wildlife habitat by fully funding backlogged conservation programs, designed to improve (and reward) farmers’ environmental stewardship.

Before Congress’ August recess, the House of Representatives passed a farm bill that’s more or less business as usual. Some senators are vowing big changes when they return to Washington in September. Even President Bush wants more reform. Half measures won’t fix what’s wrong with the farm bill. It’s time Congress got at the roots—as good farmers do—and coaxed solutions from the ground up.

Gene Baur is President of Farm Sanctuary. Mia MacDonald is Executive Director of Brighter Green. The two organizations collaborated recently on a white paper on the 2007 U.S. farm bill.