Footing the Bill

25 Aug

The first in a series of articles on the Farm Bill.

From econ.lastate.eduSome 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.

from 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.


3 Responses to “Footing the Bill”

  1. David Viale October 21, 2007 at 11:26 am #

    First, I’d like to say you’ve done a great job overall on this page, I hope you both keep it up.

    I’d just like to add a side note to the Farm Bill post. Admittedly I don’t know much about the policies in the bill which drive the negative food issues described in the original post. Sounds like there is much room for improvement. That said, I’m fearful the original post may give folks the impression that the Farm Bill should be revoked entirely. While there are major improvements that need to occur, the Farm Bill does provide some great conservation policies and funding insentives that help farmers shift towards more sustainable agricultural practices.

    Cnservation measures such as wetlands protection and restoration and retiring surplus crop fields are examples of the major conservation based programs within the Farm Bill. These incentive based programs diversify farmers income while conserving and restoring wildlife habitat and need to, at the very least, have an increase in the current level of funding. Maintaining the current level of funding would be a step backwards, since current funding is inadequate (we are literally losing ground).

    Additional environmental benefits of these programs (Conservation Reserve Program CRP and the Wetlands Reserve Program WRP )include helping to maintain and increase water quality, reduce soil erosion, and maintain and restore critical wetland and instream habitat for wildlife such as waterfowl, trout, amphibians, etc.

    While the Farm Bill does provide critical conservation programming, it is by far from adequate, let alone perfect. Positive steps towards sustainable agriculture can be taken by increasing funding, distributing funding to priority areas equally, amending policies that encourage breaking of native sod, and implementing incentives for farmers to switch crops to biofuel crops good for our energy independence and wildlife habitat.

    Questioning the value of a bill that can change every 5 years? Well, the beauty of the farm bill is the 5 year referendum. This 5 year window offers an opportunity to develop graded policies…policies that will incrementally phase in conservation programs and phase out wasteful practices. This gradual shift would occur on a time scale (every 5 years) that is not glacially slow. Incremental 5 year phases should also combat arguments that try to say changes in policies are “dramatic” and “will make conservation farming economically impossible.”

    But don’t take my word for it. I’m not an expert. This, as most environmental issues, is extremely complex. It impacts our environment, economy, and social fabric at all scales – federal to local.

    The good news is that almost everyone (from conservation groups to corn and soy lobbyists to pesticide manufacturers) is working on this Bill so information is easy to come by. I encourage you to check out all sides of the issue, and voice your concerns to your representatives.

    Some good web sources I’ve found are: Ducks Unlimited, the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, and federal sites like the EPA and NRCS.

    Thanks for moving the dialogue and our future, forward.

  2. bto October 24, 2007 at 2:52 pm #

    Dave – Do the environmental incentives and positive programs in the Farm Bill have to be in the Farm Bill?

    Could these items be carved out and put in different legislation? One major problem with Farm Bill type lawmaking is that many projects are balled into one, which makes poor legislation easy to pass or rather, hard to vote down. If you fight the Farm Bill and its subsidation of the “wrong” foods, then you are also forced to fight the positive items in the bill. Perhaps decoupling the two and making a Eco-Bill that is up for 5-year referendum and a separate Farm Bill might help split the baby?


  1. Footing the Bill « Groundswell - September 28, 2007

    […] Originally posted at Kitchen Dancing on August 25th, 2007. View original post here.  […]

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