This essay was adapted from Daniel Imhoff”s Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill, completely updated and due out in November.
By law the US farm bill is due for its regular five- to seven-year renewal on September 30, 2012. For Americans concerned about the confluence of food, farming and federal policy, the political spectacle can be enlightening and frustrating. At its best the farm bill is an important opportunity to bring about remedies to the myriad problems with today’s agriculture and food system. It largely determines what crops farmers plant, shapes meal and snack programs for 30 million students and funds the country’s largest private land conservation efforts. But at its worst the farm bill, along with the many forces that shape it, perpetuates the counterproductive policies and priorities of American agriculture.
The farm bill is also a good measure of the country’s economic situation. This year it will dole out more than $70 billion in food stamps, under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). A minimum-wage-supplement program in practice, food stamps are what lawmakers who don’t represent big commodity-producing states get in return for supporting farm bills, which are heavily lavished with subsidies and crop insurance. The past decade has seen the number of Americans enrolled in food stamps nearly triple; with more than 45 million signed up for nutrition assistance by mid-2011, SNAP accounts for more than 70 cents of every farm bill dollar spent.
But the farm bill’s primary function is to give the Department of Agriculture a budget and marching orders while also providing nutrition guidelines and a food safety net for every American. These tasks can be at odds with each other. Twenty percent of the farm bill’s spending, for instance, provides incentives to farmers to produce the most prolific harvests possible, a third of which are eventually exported to global markets. Yet most of the crops supported by subsidies aren’t eaten directly by humans here or anywhere: they’re fed to livestock or manufactured into oils, refined grains, processed food ingredients or ethanol. Even as the USDA’s 2010 dietary guidelines specifically recommend that Americans reduce fat and cholesterol intake—hallmarks of animal-based foods—and eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, the primary outlet for the 90 million acres of corn and 70 million acres of soybeans we subsidize every year is feeding livestock like beef and dairy cows. This is not just a minor disconnect. It’s like two trains on different tracks going opposite directions.
With Congress under so much pressure to reduce the deficit, the upcoming 2012 farm bill cycle promises to be particularly heated. Agribusiness lobbyists are adept at rallying their formidable wagons in the face of USDA budget cuts to protect subsidy programs that prop up corn, cotton, wheat, rice, soybeans, sugar and milk production. And it’s tough to compete with the $120 million that agribusiness showers on Congress every year. Politically, Big Ag nearly always trumps progressive forces fighting for smaller-scale, diversified, sustainable agriculture. Even when there are populist victories, promises are easily broken. Conservation programs and nutrition assistance are typically the first on the chopping block during budget cuts.