Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Farm(Not) Bill

I mentioned that I was reading the new book by Barbara Kingsolver about her families attempt to have all of the their food come from local sources for a year. It is called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and while I am only in Chapter 2 it is fascinating reading and I am learning stuff I should have already known. I am a very serious person when it comes to food. I love to cook and the less processed and pre-manipulated my food is the better. I love cooking from "scratch" and I am a big supporter of the slow food, organic and buy local movements. I avoid buying food where I can't identify the source and for that reason spend more on my food than many who always go for the cheapest and/or easiest.

So that brings us to the upcoming Farm Bill. The NYTimes Magazine last week had a great (but too short) article on the upcoming farm bill and its vast and multifaceted effects on our lives in everything from health to economics to trade. While no one much pays attention to it the farm bill it probably has more widespread effect on our lives than any other law the Congress passes. This huge, complicated, and completely regressive farm bill has influences that extend far beyond farming and actually has very little to do with effective agricultural policies. It is mostly concerned with politics, lobbying, and narrow agribusiness interests.

The NYTimes explains,
Processed foods are more "energy dense" than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them "junk." Drewnowski concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly — and get fat . . . For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation . . . sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system.
The way it sets those rules is by providing huge subsidies for corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton.
For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy . . . The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.
This bill is not just an American farm bill either. It has global effects. The subsidies we give out corn, soybean and wheat farmers allows them to sell their products on the world market for less that it costs to produce them and thereby lowers the world prices for these commodities.
To speak of the farm bill’s influence on the American food system does not begin to describe its full impact — on the environment, on global poverty, even on immigration. By making it possible for American farmers to sell their crops abroad for considerably less than it costs to grow them, the farm bill helps determine the price of corn in Mexico and the price of cotton in Nigeria and therefore whether farmers in those places will survive or be forced off the land, to migrate to the cities — or to the United States. The flow of immigrants north from Mexico since Nafta is inextricably linked to the flow of American corn in the opposite direction, a flood of subsidized grain that the Mexican government estimates has thrown two million Mexican farmers and other agricultural workers off the land since the mid-90s. (More recently, the ethanol boom has led to a spike in corn prices that has left that country reeling from soaring tortilla prices; linking its corn economy to ours has been an unalloyed disaster for Mexico’s eaters as well as its farmers.) You can’t fully comprehend the pressures driving immigration without comprehending what U.S. agricultural policy is doing to rural agriculture in Mexico.

As I said above, I have been focused on food for a long time and thought I had a pretty good understanding of the market and the supply chain and at least a grasp of some of the issues surrounding the food I eat and how it is produced. I am rapidly understanding that I am pretty ignorant and if I think I am ignorant what about your average grocery shopper?

The food industry in this country, starting with the so called "farm bill" is a disaster and it is making us unhealthy not to mention fat and it allows dangerous foods (which we've seen with alarming frequency lately) to reach our tables. Not only is it killing us it is screwing up the agricultural economies of developing countries and wreaking havoc on the environment. We all need to wake up and smell the coffee in this country. We are letting a very small handful of Congressmen and an equally small group of agribusiness people set the rules. If we can create a 15 billion dollar a year organic food industry we can probably begin to take notice and make sure our elected representatives know that we expect the farm bill to actually do something positive about the food we eat. That means starting to wean big agribusiness from the huge commodities subsidies and figuring out ways to encourage farmers to grow more real food. It is a terrible thing to know that of every dollar the average American spends on food only 15 lousy cents actually gets to person who put the seed in the ground and nurtured it to maturity. The other 85% goes to the processors and other middlemen. Damn shame.

The picture above was taken on one of my forays into the weekend market along the Rhone in Lyon last year.

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