Top | Opinion

Farm Bill matters

(article, Daniel Imhoff)

Every five years, Congress revisits and passes a massive but little-understood piece of legislation known as the Farm Bill. This year will be one of those years, and if things play out the way they’re headed, this could become the most scrutinized food-and-farm-policy debate in recent history. 


h1. More on the Farm Bill

The Farm Bill — or as some more aptly call it, The Food and Farm Bill — is being renewed in Congress this year. 

Because we know this is an incredibly influential bill, affecting nothing less than how and what we eat in this country, we at Culinate want to get the word out about it. 

This piece, which delves into the details of the bill, was originally published in Edible Portland. It is published here with permission of Dan Imhoff.

Want to read more? In January, we reprinted a chef's eloquent opinion from the New York Times about the need to overhaul the Farm Bill.


Originally conceived as an emergency bailout for millions of farmers and unemployed during the dark times of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, the Farm Bill has snowballed into one of the most — if not the most — significant forces affecting food, farming, and land use in the United States. 

In a country consecrated to private-property rights and free-market ideals, it might seem hard to fathom that a single piece of legislation could wield such far-reaching influence. But to a large extent, the Farm Bill determines what sort of foods we Americans eat (and how they taste and how much they cost), which crops are grown under what conditions, and, ultimately, whether we’re properly nourished or not.

h3. Why the Farm Bill matters 

If you pay taxes, care about the nutritional value of school lunches, or worry about biodiversity or the loss of farmland and open space, you have a personal stake in the tens of billions of dollars committed annually to agriculture and food policies.

If you’re concerned about escalating federal budget deficits, the fate of family farmers, a food system dominated by corporations and commodities, conditions of immigrant farm workers, the state of the country’s woodlands, or the marginalization of locally raised organic food and grass-fed meat and dairy products, you should pay attention to the Farm Bill. 

Dozens of other reasons the Farm Bill is critical to our land, our bodies, and our children’s future include: 

 The twilight of the cheap-oil age and the onset of unpredictable climatic conditions; 
 Looming water shortages and crashing fish populations; 
 Broken rural economies; 
 Euphoria over corn and soybean expansion for biofuels; 
 Escalating medical and economic costs of child and adult obesity;
 Record payouts to corporate farms that aren’t even losing money;
 Over 35 million Americans, half of them children, who don’t get enough to eat. 

“The farm policies we design now will likely determine whether we will continue to have a sustainable food system in the future,” writes longtime North Dakota organic farmer and food activist Fred Kirschenmann, in the introduction to my book Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill. 

Although the economic challenges of modern agriculture may seem abstract to many urban and suburban residents, he argues, “An enlightened food and farm policy is of considerable consequence to every citizen on the planet.” 

We all do have to eat, after all.

h3. What is the Farm Bill?

The Farm Bill is essentially a $90 billion tax bill for food, feed, fiber, and, more recently, fuel. Each bill receives a formal name, such as the Food and Agriculture Act of 1977, or the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 (a.k.a. “Freedom to Farm”), but more often, each act is simply referred to as “the Farm Bill.”

[%image cows float=right width=400 caption="The Farm Bill determines what sort of foods we Americans eat."

While many people equate its programs and subsidies with assistance for struggling family farmers, the Farm Bill actually has two primary thrusts. Food stamps, school lunch, and other nutrition programs account for 50 percent of current spending — an average of $44 billion per year between 2000 and 2006. Income and price supports for a number of storable commodity crops combine for another 35 percent of spending. 

In addition, the Farm Bill funds a range of other program “titles,” including conservation and environment, forestry, renewable energy, research, and rural development. 

For decades, Farm Bill negotiations have been dominated by a tag-team of two powerful interest groups. The “farm bloc” (representatives from commodity states along with the agribusiness lobby) has orchestrated a quid pro quo with the anti-hunger caucus (urban representatives aligned with hunger advocacy groups). As a result, ever-increasing payments have been successfully directed toward surplus commodity production and the livestock feedlot industry. In return, the Farm Bill’s desperately needed hunger safety-net programs have survived relatively unscathed. 

h3. Who gets the money?

For the simplest answer, one might twist a line from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign: “It’s the commodity groups, stupid.” Thanks to a growing number of nongovernmental, governmental, and mass-media resources, following the Farm Bill money trail is not that difficult. (Excellent places to start include the Environmental Working Group, Oxfam International, the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the Washington Post, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.) 

According to the Congressional Research Service, 84 percent of commodity-support spending goes to the production of just five crops: corn, cotton, wheat, rice, and soybeans. Half of that money currently goes to just seven states that produce most of those commodities. The richest 10 percent of farm-subsidy recipients (many of whom are corporations and absentee landowners who can hardly be classified as “actively engaged” in growing crops) take in more than two-thirds of those payments. 

A few other broad brushstrokes:

• Almost 50 percent of all commodity subsidies went to 5 percent of eligible farmers in 2005.

• Subsidies help the largest farms to acquire the best land and squeeze out smaller growers.

• The growth rate for jobs trailed the national average in nearly two-thirds of counties receiving heavy subsidies between 2000 and 2003, according to a recent report.

h3. What about the food pyramid?

Very little of the agriculture we subsidize is directly edible, at least by humans. Out of the hundreds and even thousands of plant and animal species that have been cultivated for human use, the Farm Bill favors just four primary groups: food grains, feed grains, oilseeds, and upland cotton. Most are either fed to cattle in confinement or processed into oils, flours, starches, sugars, industrial food additives, and, increasingly, biofuels. 

[%image feedlot float=left caption="Many of the subsidies in the Farm Bill support crops grown to feed cattle in confinement."]

It only takes a stroll down the supermarket aisles to understand how Farm Bill dollars flow into the country’s food chain. A dollar buys hundreds of more calories in the snack food, cereal, or soda aisles than it does in the produce section. Why? Because the Farm Bill favors the mega-production of corn (resulting in cheap high-fructose corn syrup) and soybeans rather than regional supplies of fresh carrots, healthy fruits, and nuts. Unfortunately, eating a diet high in calories doesn’t necessarily ensure that one is well-fed — even if that food is cheap. 

While the USDA’s food pyramid emphasizes the nutritional advantages of five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, Farm Bill funding for diversified row crop and orchard farming remains relatively disconnected from the balanced, healthy diet that professional nutritionists endorse. Meanwhile, most consumer food dollars spent in farm country end up leaving the region because our agricultural areas have effectively become “food deserts.” 

There is at least one simple solution to this. Farm and food subsidy programs could be realigned to support the federal dietary guidelines and reoriented toward food chains that produce and distribute locally grown, healthy foods. 

h3. A food and farm bill for the 21st century?

The silver lining is that Americans actually do have a substantially large food and farm policy program to debate. Conditions for change have perhaps never been better, as market dynamics and public awareness rapidly align to create uncertainty about farm politics as usual. 

Indeed, the Farm Bill matters because it can actually serve as the economic engine driving small-scale entrepreneurship, on-farm research, species protection, nutritional assistance, school lunches made from scratch, regional development, and habitat restoration, to name just a few. 

Our challenge is not to abolish government supports altogether, but to ensure that those subsidies we do choose to legislate actually serve as valuable investments in the country’s future and allow us to live up to our obligations in the global community. How we get there is still to be determined. But most observers agree that the era of massive giveaways to corporations and surplus commodity producers must yield to policies that reward stewardship, promote healthy diets, secure regional economies, and do no harm to family farms or hungry kids and their families. 

“Today, because so few realize that we citizens have a dog in this fight,” writes Michael Pollan in his excellent foreword to Food Fight, “our legislators feel free to leave the debate over the Farm Bill to the farm states, very often trading their votes on agricultural policy for votes on issues that matter more to their constituents. But nothing could do more to reform America’s food system, and by doing so, improve the condition of America’s environment and public health, than if the rest of us were to weigh in.”

Also on Culinate: Columns on updated Farm Bill information, a chef's take on the impact of the Farm Bill, and a book about the Farm Bill, Food Fight.

p(bio). Dan Imhoff is the author and publisher of numerous books, including Farming with the Wild, Paper or Plastic, Building with Vision, and Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature. His most recent book, Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill, is distributed by the University of California Press.

feedlot, l

cows, l

reference-image, l