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It's Time to Turn the Farm Bill Debate Into a Food Fight | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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It's Time to Turn the Farm Bill Debate Into a Food Fight

Would someone in Congress please, please, please propose changing the name of the "farm bill" to the "food bill"?

Maybe if the issue at hand had a more dramatic name the media and the American public would take a serious interest in congressional debates that are in the process of defining not just the quality of the food we eat but the future of our rural communities, the environment that surrounds us, and the type of economy our nation chooses to construct.

This week, Congress is putting the finishing touches on a long-term farm bill that has, for the most part, been developed behind closed doors in such complex and interest-driven negotiations that most Americans are unaware of the issues that are in play. Yet, as the disastrous Freedom to Farm Act of 1996 proved, a bad farm bill can devastate a good nation.

When Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott got together to write a farm bill that favored corporate agribusiness at every turn, they undermined working family farmers so badly that the bill quickly became known as "the Freedom to Fail Bill." And farmers did fail, with several states experiencing the most dramatic loss in the number of family farms since the Great Depression era.

The next multiyear farm bill is now being shaped in high-stakes sessions of a powerful House-Senate Farm Bill Conference Committee. The bill that will eventually be sent to President Bush's desk will be a compromise measure between a House plan that has been more influenced by corporate agribusiness demands and Senate legislation that is somewhat more reflective of the goals of working farmers.

Any compromise is likely to be better than the soon-to-be-scrapped "Freedom to Fail" structure. And that's a good thing. Sympathy for working farmers is a legitimate rationale for backing a redirection of federal agricultural policy priorities. But it is far from the only one.

Americans who have never walked a fence line, planted a seed or milked a cow ought to get engaged with the current debate because the issues that it touches on go far beyond the farm gate.

Farm bill debates are the legislative venue for most discussions on food labeling (so that consumers know where and how their meat, grains, cheeses, fruits, vegetables and drinks are produced), importation of potentially unsafe food products, and regulation of genetic modification of food. Farm bill debates are also the place where Congress entertains questions of controlling corporate monopolies, regulating food-processing industries, and development of rural areas that contain some of the poorest and most racially diverse stretches of America.

"There are all these issues of race, class, corporate power -- not to mention the quality of what we eat and drink -- that are decided in the farm bill debate," Merle Hansen, the Nebraska farmer who is president emeritus of the North American Farm Alliance, once explained to me. "Yet, for the most part, Americans don't know that the debate is going on. People need to recognize that the lobbyists for the agribusiness corporations are the ones who like it this way. The less attention there is, the more they can get away with."

The Senate farm bill includes a number of critical anti-corporate and consumer-protection components that need to be safeguarded. Of particular interest are measures to require country-of-origin labeling on agricultural products and provide for far more serious examination of where and how food is produced; programs to aid sustainable agriculture initiatives; and a section proposed by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., to protect the legal right of farmers to challenge unsound practices being forced upon them by agribusiness corporations with which they contract.

The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture has set up a great Web site (www.sustainableagriculture.net) to help Americans -- even those with no mud on their boots -- leap into the debate. And everyone who eats ought to make the leap because, while they call what is being shaped in Washington a farm bill, this really is the food bill.

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