The first in a series of articles on the Farm Bill.
Some of you might know that in the past month I began a new job, working for a fantastic media reform organization (Free Press). One of our main talking points at Free Press focuses on how the current media system we have (i.e. ultra consolidated, corporately controlled, homogonous, infotainment) is not the natural outgrowth of market forces. It is easy to view our consolidated media – where a mere six companies control more than 75% of what we see, hear, and read – as the result of business deals and the laws supply and demand at work.
In reality, since America’s founding, our media has been shaped explicitly and intentionally by policies originally designed to promote diverse viewpoints and protect freedom of the press. America’s founders understood that information is the lifeblood of democracy. However, in recent decades these polices have been eroded by big money and corporate lobbyists who have inserted themselves into the policy making process and pushed the public out of the picture. To fix our media we have to fix the policies, to fix the policies we need to insert ourselves back into the policy making process.
So what does this have to do with food?
In an April 2007 article in the New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan argues, “the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly–and get fat.” He then goes on to note that “This perverse state of affairs is not, as you might think, the inevitable result of the free market.”
Hmmm, sounds familiar.
Pollan outlines the way that one very complex and poorly named bill – the Farm Bill – dictates a huge amount of what we grow in our fields, buy at our stores, and serve at our tables. In our consolidated, industrial agricultural system, this bill empowers a very small number of people to essentially set the American diet. Pollan puts it this way, “This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system–indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system.”
In another article, this one in The Nation’s Food Issue late last year, Pollan also takes aim at the Farm Bill. In that article he explains that
“The farm bill determines what our kids eat for lunch in school every day. Right now, the school lunch program is designed not around the goal of children’s health but to help dispose of surplus agricultural commodities, especially cheap feedlot beef and dairy products, both high in fat.
The farm bill writes the regulatory rules governing the production of meat in this country, determining whether the meat we eat comes from sprawling, brutal, polluting factory farms and the big four meatpackers (which control 80 percent of the market) or from local farms.
Most important, the farm bill determines what crops the government will support–and in turn what kinds of foods will be plentiful and cheap. Today that means, by and large, corn and soybeans. These two crops are the building blocks of the fast-food nation.”
At this point, it seems worthwhile to come back around to where we started and ask, “So what does this have to do with the media?”
In a society that is still fleeing rural America at a drastic pace (even while community supported agriculture and local foods are more hip than ever), few people are interested in the Farm Bill. Or more precisely, they don’t know why they should be interested in it. As the media has turned its attention increasingly to celebrity gossip and sensational glitz, filling nearly 60 percent of most newscasts with weather and sports, there is no space in the news cycle for the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill won’t sell advertising slots, and since most news stories on the nightly news average about 60 seconds, diving into a complex piece of legislation like the Farm Bill is not realistic.
Pollan agrees. He writes, “This absurdity would not persist if more voters realized that the farm bill is not a parochial piece of legislation concerning only the interests of farmers. Today, because so few of us realize we have a dog in this fight, our legislators feel free to leave deliberations over the farm bill to the farm states, very often trading away their votes on agricultural policy for votes on issues that matter more to their constituents. But what could matter more than the health of our children and the health of our land?” For Pollan, it comes down to information. When the public is kept in the dark about the vital issues of our society, our ability to choose, to govern, and to make change is threatened.
In the end of both these articles Pollan suggests that the one most important thing we can do in terms of the health of ourselves and our country is to get informed and get involved in the process. This is not a sexy answer, and not an easy one either.
In this case, media reform and food activism go hand in hand.