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The Farm Bill: Pricey seeds of unsustainability

Chris O'Brien

April 24, 2008

5 Min Read
The Farm Bill: Pricey seeds of unsustainability

On March 21, a panel of stakeholders including food, farm, labor and media experts convened for "Food Fight, A Teach-In on the Farm Bill" in front of a full house at University of California, Berkeley. Moderated by journalism professor Michael Pollan, the core of the discussion was that it's not just a bill about farms, it's about food, health and the economy, and it affects us all.

Up for vote every five years, the extremely complicated and relatively obscure piece of legislation in theory addresses farming, but largely sets the rules for our national food policies. It's these policies and their net effects—such as what we feed our kids in schools and why farmers get subsidies—that the panel, along with environmental and social justice groups, wants revisited and changed by legislators.

A quick look shows the $90 billion bill budget divided roughly as follows: 50 percent for nutrition programs such as school lunches and food assistance programs; 30 percent to subsidize commodities such as corn, cotton, wheat, rice and soy; and about 10 percent towards conservation efforts including land-idling and cost-share initiatives. The final 10 percent gets divided among a host of programs such as rural development, research, organic farming, renewable energy and food safety.

The panelists noted the disproportionate allocation of funds and highlighted some correlations and statistics. For example, Dan Imhoff, the author of Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill said that the legislation is doing more harm than good by subsidizing grains, the consumption of which is directly related to diabetes and obesity, diseases that tally almost $200 billion a year in health costs.

Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services for the Berkeley school system explained that 90 percent of food fed to school children is processed and contains high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats. The typical lunch: chicken nuggets, tater tots, chocolate milk and canned fruit cocktail.

She said the money allocated for food in schools isn't enough. Most of the $2.42 per child goes to overhead and, at best, about $1 is left for food. Whole foods and fresh vegetables are not affordable, and schools have little choice but to feed kids mass-manufactured, processed and subsidized food products from the giant corporate food producers.

She cited CDC stats that say, based on current diets, more than 40 percent of children born in the year 2000 will develop some level of diabetes before they graduate high school.

Carlos Marentes, director of Sin Fronteras Organizing Project, noted that more than just children are impacted as he described the exploitation of migrant and local farm workers. He said the bill encourages massive commercial farming to provide cheaper food which, in turn drives smaller farmers out of business, replaces workers with mechanical harvesters and increases levels of pesticides in crops.

Marentes would like to see the issues of economic justice and health conditions added to the farm bill. He said that of the 5 million farm workers in the United States, 80 percent are Mexican and earn an average of $7,000 a year.

Ken Cook, director of Environmental Working Group, highlighted the unbalanced distribution of subsidies, pointing out that 72 percent of the money goes to only 10 percent of the recipients including $130 million to 8,600 "farms" in the Washington, D.C. area.

The disparity extends beyond finances and into the field with current farming in America allocating 88 million acres to grow corn for ethanol and 138,000 acres for organic corn.

Cook called for the bill to put more funds into issues such as the Conservation Reserve Program, designed to rotate farm land out of production to protect wildlife and the environment. He said last year there was $2.2 billion in unfunded applications for such programs; that money went to grain commodities instead.

George Naylor, Iowa corn farmer and president of the National Family Farm Coalition explored the idea that the real problem is economics. The farm program started in 1933 with the New Deal which guaranteed farmers a fair price for their crops. But in today's market, the price of crops, particularly commodity crops, is regulated by the Chicago Board of Options Exchange, and the market often pays farmers less for their crops than it costs to raise them, with the difference made up through government subsidy payments.

The question regarding this arrangement is: who's benefiting? It's not the farmers; not the school children; not the taxpayers; not the workers. Rather, big food and commodity companies as well as the giant feed lots that buy commodities at the lowest prices, let government dollars make up the difference, and profit from unrealistic low material costs. The other beneficiaries are brokers and middle men who profit from the arbitrage between off-the-farm and distribution prices.

To that point, since the 1980s, the average vegetable farmer's pay has increased by 45 percent while the average vegetable cost to consumer has increased by 240 percent.

Naylor says the problem is the belief that we are entitled to cheap energy, both in fossil fuels and food calories. And as long as we hold that entitlement, unsustainable actions such as subsidies and price control will continue at the cost of family farmers, nutrition, balance in the economy and harmony with the environment.

The panelists concluded that the vehicles for change at this point are awareness and the democratic voice, and encouraged the audience and listeners to get educated and actively communicate with legislators, demanding fair and sustainable legislation for the nation's farms and food.

To find out more, visit these resources:

National Family Farm Coalition:
Environmental Working Group:
EWG Farm Subsidy Database:
Ann Cooper's site:

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