Since about – oh, let’s just say November 9, 2016, not to be too precise – many Americans have found themselves much more interested in politics than in times past. And while that’s a good thing, it’s an understatement to say American politics can be rather confusing. As in, we don’t really get what’s going on, but it doesn’t seem to have that much impact on our relatively comfortable day-to-day lives, so we just go along, merrily forwarding cat videos, virtual-signing critical online petitions that have absolutely no real-world impact and binge-watching the new season of Stranger Things.
Finding Quiet Farm tries hard to both educate and entertain, so today we’re going to talk about the farm bill. Oh, I can hear you rolling your eyes right now all the way across the Interwebs, but bear with me. The farm bill, which as Michael Pollan says “should actually be called the food bill,” really does affect every single American, every single day. Multiple times a day, to be honest, because each bite of food you eat in this country is directly tied to the farm bill. And if you have kids, and if they eat any food at all in a school environment, then you’re affected even more. Without further ado, then, a brief, (hopefully) simple introduction to the farm bill, and why you should care about it.
Let’s start with the basics. What is the farm bill?
The farm bill is a “multibillion dollar tangle of agricultural subsidies, welfare programs and environmental patronage,” or, more simply, it’s legislation that connects the food on our plates, the farmers and ranchers who produce that food, and the natural resources – our soil, air and water – that making growing food possible. It costs just under $500 billion – that’s half a trillion U.S. taxpayer dollars!
It’s a multiyear omnibus (meaning it covers many different programs) law revamped about every five years and the current farm bill will expire in 2018. That means it’s time for our beloved politicians to start crafting a new farm bill.
What does the farm bill do?
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition puts it best:
“In the simplest terms, the farm bill has a tremendous impact on farming livelihoods, how food is grown, and what kinds of foods are grown. This in turn affects the environment, local economies, and public health. These are some pretty good reasons to become involved in advocating for a farm bill that supports health and sustainability!
Through programs covering everything from crop insurance for farmers to healthy food access for low-income families, from beginning farmer training to support for sustainable farming practices, this powerful package of laws sets the course of our food and farming system – in good ways and bad. It’s our job to make sure the farm bill reflects what our country’s farmers and eaters need for a sustainable future.
Every five years, the farm bill expires and is updated: proposed, debated, and passed by Congress and then signed into law by the President. (The current farm bill, The Agricultural Act of 2014, was signed into law on February 7, 2014.)
The farm bill got its start in 1933 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. Its three original goals – to keep food prices fair for farmers and consumers, ensure an adequate food supply, and protect and sustain the country’s vital natural resources – responded to the economic and environmental crises of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Although the farm bill has changed in the last 70 years, its primary purposes are the same.”
Basically, the farm bill does many things, but its most significant elements are the federal food stamp program (officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), crop insurance and crop subsidies. There are other, smaller aspects, but these are by far the most important (and costly).
How does this affect me, or more literally, why should I care?
You should care if you either 1. eat food in the U.S. and/or 2. pay taxes, because you’re funding this monster. And if you’re concerned about our rapidly escalating health care costs, or that for the first time in modern industrial history the current generation has a lower life expectancy than their parents, or even if you only care about just your own household food budget, then the farm bill (and food policy in general) should matter to you.
What’s wrong with the farm bill?
Where to begin? It was implemented in the 1930s, and modern agriculture is vastly different now than it was during the Great Depression and the ensuing years. After World War II, we got really, really good at growing vast quantities of corn, wheat and soy with the help of leftover nitrogen, which was made into powerful fertilizer. And in the 1970s farmers were encouraged to “get big or get out,” so the small, diversified family farm started to disappear, and farmers were paid to constantly increase their production of cereal grains, again primarily corn and soy – now used as inexpensive animal feed and as the primary ingredients in processed foods and drinks.
Now, fewer than two million Americans live on farms, while crop yields – and pesticide, herbicide and insecticide usage – continues to increase. Huge monoculture farms cover most of the Midwest, reducing natural diversity and vastly increasing the chances of another devastating Dust Bowl. Large monocrop farmers are millionaires many times over, and small farms are going under. We produce far more cheap, high-calorie, nutritionally-devoid food than we need in this country, and the result of that overproduction includes massive dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, sick animals raised in their own waste, and a population ridden with heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other lifestyle-related ailments. Plus, many low-income Americans cannot afford fresh fruit and vegetables and other whole foods.
Without question, the farm bill needs revision so it can better impact our current crises, including our food-insecure population and the serious health and environmental burdens our country is facing. But Big Ag has a lot of money and a lot of influence, and the 2018 version is unlikely to offer any significant improvements.
What can I do to help implement changes in future farm bills?
Well, I’d love to end this on a super-positive, grassroots movement note and tell you to write your elected representative! Call your elected representative! Stand outside the office of your elected representative! But let’s be truthful here: all of our elected representatives are on someone’s payroll, and lobbying is a lucrative career. So the best you can do, to be perfectly honest, is vote with your dollars, because that’s the only vote that really matters. And you vote every single time you spend money.
If you value small farms, find your local farms, know your farmer, and buy directly from them. Skip the middleman. Search out local CSAs, and patronize them. If you believe more federal dollars should support organic farms, buy organic. Read labels, and ask questions. If you want to eat animals that have lived a good life and had a humane death, stop buying cheap commodity feedlot meat and battery eggs. Buy from companies who honor the same values you honor. Do some research. Don’t buy heavily processed foods and drinks made from soy and corn derivatives. Grow your own food, if possible. Anything helps, even a few windowboxes of herbs. And above all else, refuse to believe that something is in your best interest just because someone tells you so. Stand up for yourself, your family, your health and your values – because everyone is out to sell you something, and it’s your responsibility to figure out whether you really should buy it.