In fall 2011, in an act of what can be described only as hubris, I had the bright idea of teaching a course on the farm bill.
For nearly 25 years, I had been writing and teaching about food politics and policy at New York University, and I knew that the farm bill dictated not only agricultural policy, but also such things as international food aid and feeding the hungry in America. It had to be one of the most important laws affecting food systems — if you care about such matters, likely the most important. With the 2008 farm bill up for renewal, I wanted to know more about it, and professor that I am, I thought: What better way to learn something than to teach it?
Big mistake. From the minute I started preparing the course, I could see that the farm bill was going to be too big, bloated and sprawling for any one human mind to absorb, certainly not mine. At one point, I tried to catalog the hundreds of programs it covers, each with its own set of arcane stipulations and invested lobbyists. Beyond the obvious — that its agricultural programs are heavily slanted to benefit Big Agriculture — its details defeated me. My students, most of them enrolled in graduate programs in nutrition, food studies, public health, public policy or law, were deeply invested in farm bill issues but they too were soon overwhelmed. The bill not only lacked an overarching vision, but seemed designed to obfuscate how the programs actually worked.
It’s not even close to reasonable
I came away from this experience convinced that agricultural policy in our country is not only hazardous to public health and the environment, but also to American democracy. Democracy requires informed citizens. I suspect that few citizens, let alone members of Congress, have the vaguest idea of what is in this bill and how it works in practice. Even lobbyists and congressional staff are likely to know only the pieces they are paid to understand.
This is a shame, because the farm bill matters. It is crucial to practically everything about our food system: what crops get subsidized, how much foods cost, how land is used and whether low-income Americans have enough to eat. Whether you are rich or poor, much about your food choices is shaped by what’s in this bill’s 357 printed pages.
Given its stunning importance, you might think it would start with some kind of principle. Alas, you would be wrong. On the first day of class, I asked the students to tell me what they thought a rational agricultural policy should promote. They quickly came up with a handful of goals: provide sufficient food for the entire population at an affordable price; produce a surplus for international trade and aid; ensure an adequate income for farmers; provide farm workers with a living wage and decent working conditions; protect farmers against bad weather, volatile markets and climate change; promote regional, seasonal, organic and sustainable food production; conserve soil, land and forest; protect water and air quality, natural resources and wildlife; and raise farm animals humanely. Taken together, they describe a food system designed to promote the health of people and the planet.
A vision as idealistic as my students suggested would be a tall order by any standard, but the 2014 farm bill doesn’t even come close. If you examine how its incentives line up, you quickly see that it strongly favors the industrial agriculture of the Midwest and South over that of the Northeast and West; methods requiring chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides over those that are organic and sustainable; and commodity crops for animal feed and ethanol rather than “specialty” crops (translation: fruits and vegetables) for human consumption. Because its benefits are proportionate to production levels, it promotes crop overproduction. This makes food hugely competitive and forces the manufacturers of processed foods and drinks to do everything possible to encourage sales of their products. The result is a food environment that encourages overeating of highly caloric, highly processed foods, but discourages consumption of healthier, relatively unprocessed foods.
A “jungle” of inedible politics
As a result of today’s intense public and professional interest in food issues, we now know a lot about how social forces drive food decisions. We know that overeating leads down the line to ballooning health care costs; we know that industrial farming depletes the soil and water that will someday be needed to feed our grandchildren. If you were to design a national food policy based on public health, it would be the antithesis of the farm bill. How did this happen? Politics, of course.
The current situation can be traced to decisions made by Congress in 1906. That was the year Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, a muckraking account of Chicago’s meat-packing plants. With an urgency that seems incredible in the light of today’s partisan government, Congress immediately passed two laws dealing with food safety and assigned their regulation to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA put one of its departments in charge of the law dealing with animals and a second department in charge of the law dealing with adulteration of food products. The second eventually became the Food and Drug Administration, which moved its public health functions to the Public Health Service. But USDA ran the food stamp program and, when no other agency wanted dietary guidance, took it on as well, thereby causing endless conflicts between USDA’s historic mandate to promote industrial agriculture, and its newer mandate to advise the public about diet and health. The farm bill focuses mainly on the meat-and-dairy mandate — production of animal-based foods and the commodity crops that feed animals and yield ethanol. For the health and sustainability functions it acquired later — regulation of organic agriculture, development of dietary guidelines every five years (jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services), publication of food guides for the general public and oversight of food assistance to low-income Americans — the USDA can be a most uncomfortable home.
Organic production methods, for example, are not merely an alternative way of growing food. They constitute an explicit critique of industrial farming: They reject chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and genetic modification. For years, the USDA websites included a dismissive disclaimer that organic production methods were no better than conventional methods, despite their well-established benefits for soil quality. It no longer uses that statement, but its Organic Standards Board — which sets the rules for what can be marketed as “organic” — is under constant pressure from large agricultural producers to weaken restrictions on which chemical “inputs” are acceptable; this would allow companies to use industrial methods but sell products at the higher prices claimed for organics. USDA’s attempts to achieve détente between organic and GMO producers have gone nowhere to date.
Eating what the government subsidizes most would get you “a lecture from your doctor”
The most blatant conflicts of interest, however, show up in the USDA’s dietary advice. For years, the Dietary Guidelines have induced the wrath of lobbyists whenever they implied that eating less beef would be a good way to reduce consumption of saturated fat. Last year, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee caused a firestorm when it suggested that meat-eating was environmentally unsustainable, given the disproportionate contribution of farm animals to greenhouse gases and climate change. Pressure by meat industry lobbyists got Congress involved and forced the USDA and HHS to announce well in advance that the Dietary Guidelines would not even mention the word “sustainability,” as indeed, they did not.
The guidelines do, however, suggest eating more fruits and vegetables, advice that the USDA repeats in its MyPlate food guide for the general public. This guide illustrates the idea that half the plate — 50 percent — should be fruits and vegetables. But USDA’s farm bill policies have historically allocated less than 1 percent of farm support funds for promoting these foods, with nearly all of the remaining 99 percent used to support commodity crops. The 2014 farm bill, although increasing allocations for organic and fruit-and-vegetable production and marketing, still does so at a token level. If you were to create a MyPlate meal that matched where the government historically aimed its subsidies, you’d get a lecture from your doctor. More than three-quarters of your plate would be taken up by a massive corn fritter (80 percent of benefits go to corn, grains and soy oil). You’d have a Dixie cup of milk (dairy gets 3 percent), a hamburger the size of a half dollar (livestock: 2 percent), two peas (fruits and vegetables: 0.45 percent) and an after-dinner cigarette (tobacco: 2 percent). Oh, and a really big linen napkin (cotton: 13 percent) to dab your lips.
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Recently, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group opposed to eating foods of animal origin, filed a lawsuit against USDA and HHS because the Dietary Guidelines had dropped advice to limit consumption of dietary cholesterol, for which eggs are the largest source. The lawsuit alleges that much of the research behind that decision was paid for by the egg industry, which obviously has a vested interest in encouraging people to consume more eggs.
If you want a clear portrait of how the USDA’s conflicts shape policy, just compare two of America’s major federal nutrition programs — SNAP and Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC. SNAP is the larger of the two: It provided debit cards for food purchases to 45 million low-income Americans last year, is governed by the farm bill and takes up nearly 80 percent of its funding. SNAP is in the farm bill for two reasons. Along with other food assistance programs, food stamps developed in the 1930s as a means to dispose of surplus commodities. Most such programs are still regulated by USDA but through child nutrition legislation, not the Farm Bill. SNAP comes under farm legislation for the second reason: political “logrolling.”
Since the mid-1960s, the American political system, divided as it is by urban and rural regionalism, hasn’t ensured enough votes in Congress to pass either farm supports or SNAP as bills on their own. Logrolling unites them in a “You vote for mine and I’ll vote for yours” marriage, an unholy alliance that neither Big Agriculture nor advocates for the poor can afford to see changed.
One result is that SNAP, whose nearly $80 billion budget makes it by far the largest of federal food assistance programs, encourages participants to use their benefits to purchase whatever foods they like, regardless of health consequences. Politics makes strange bedfellows, and both the food industry (for reasons of profit) and advocates for the poor (for reasons of politics) want to keep it that way. Perversely, SNAP can even provide an incentive to drink sodas. Because purchases made with SNAP dollars are not taxed, the program effectively reduces the cost of sugar-sweetened beverages in states that tax such drinks. The cost discount doesn’t apply to healthier untaxed foods.
In contrast, the much smaller WIC program provides for purchases of a specific package of foods, all of them healthy. In creating WIC, Congress required research on its effectiveness. This research consistently demonstrated health benefits from the WIC approach, and program advocates have managed to stave off most attempts to junk up the WIC package.
Ending the madness
Linking agriculture policies to health policies would help to resolve these conflicts, and leading commentators on our food system such as Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Ricardo Salvador and Olivier de Schutter have called on the president and Congress to create a national food policy, something we don’t have — but badly need. They’ve offered specific suggestions for what such a policy would entail. They point out that unless we pay much closer attention to the way agriculture is linked to diet, public health and the environment, our society will continue to suffer from widespread obesity, food insecurity, chronic disease, soil degradation and food safety scares, as well as the abandonment of rural America.
That the farm bill requires reform is a given. How to reform it is quite another matter. In light of the current lack of bipartisan efforts to govern, starting from scratch on the Farm Bill is beyond contemplation. Even piecemeal efforts to tweak existing programs toward fruit-and-vegetable support run up against political resistance. The only hope I see for meaningful change is grass-roots advocacy — a uniting of the many groups working on farm bill issues to create one loud voice for improving the bill, program by individual program.
That’s the real reason I taught the class: to encourage students — the future of American democracy — and future participants in the food movement to get political and advocate healthier and more sustainable food policies.
The food movement has one enormous advantage for anyone who wants to advocate policy change: everyone eats. Food is the easiest way of explaining to fellow citizens how conflicts of interest in federal agencies, corporate contributions to federal officials or food-industry funding of research can affect their lives. Thousands of grass-roots groups throughout our country are working to promote local and regional foods, farmers’ markets, urban farming, farm-to-school programs, animal welfare, farmworkers’ and restaurant workers’ rights, and to increase food security for everyone. These groups continue the long and distinguished history of social movements in the United States, and are part of the tradition that brought us better civil rights, women’s rights and environmental protection. They are our hope for a counterweight to Big Agriculture, although still relatively weak, they are growing in power and influence.
Farm bills are up for consideration every five years or so. We need to start work on the next one right now.
A version of this article appeared on politico.com and is reposted here with permission from the author.