The still-unresolved 2007 Farm Bill is getting the United States in trouble with her bookies at the WTO, while diverse and powerful groups wrangle over their own interests on Capitol Hill, with consumers caught in the middle. It’s like every other Farm Bill except that this time someone noticed.
In 2007, the links between the Farm Bill, USDA policy, human health and energy policy have been touched on in the popular press for the first time since the USDA’s role was significantly expanded in the early 1950s ((http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/22/magaz…) . In fact, the influence of today’s USDA reaches just about every significant geopolitical and personal situation in
one way or another, be it trade, immigration, health care policy and Medicare, the type of light bulb you may buy, the price of a Whopper vs. a bowl of cherries or even where war will break out next.
The transformation of human health by agricultural policies is closely associated with the pervasive power to deliver (or dispose of) excess commodity crops through the food chain, not to mention sweetheart deals that let chemical by-products in with these leftovers ((http://www.iatp.org/iatp/publications.c…) . That this process has occurred in the dark for so long is a testament to just how subtle governmental controls that influence the fate of billions can be. The $286 billion (senate version) 2007 Farm Bill remains unresolved after two years of work and controversy, to say the least.
The Farm Bill is a single document passed into law that serves as the guide book for the budget and directives of the USDA and US Trade Policy for a 5 year term. The US Agricultural Sector has been working without a contract since the autumn of 2007 and the impasse shows no sign of abating, partly because of the higher stakes that are perceived by just about all the major players that shape this legislation in both the US House and Senate.
Actual young farmers, consumers, educators, and health advocates are among them, for a change, though the odds of any real change do seem to get slimmer every day(http://www.charlotte.com/gaston/story/429742.html) . Even before the house passed its version of the bill in July 2007, focus by the administration and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle has been on removing subsidies for a few politically embarrassing millionaires and calling that change. So far, the overall subsidy structure remains in place and essentially unchanged except for unusual interest
in (and a few concessions to) the emergent organic marketplace.
Another potential source of change has been the shifting focus of the hunger lobby and anti-poverty advocates from getting as many calories as possible into low-income communities to getting serious about advocating for nutritional equity. As a matter of policy this means encouraging stores to carry real foods as opposed to snack foods, ending the subsidies that encourage the production of just four commodity crops (corn, wheat, sugar and soybeans). It also means supporting small, local and urban agriculture. Significant changes along these lines are not currently found in either version of the bill.
One may be certain that the USDA has fingers in a lot of pies, and human health is at the heart of what modern policy decisions are about. The still-unresolved 2007 Farm Bill is shaping up to be the first farm bill that the general public has made the connection between their quality of life and this esoteric tome that congress produces every 5 years, though the lawmakers may not have noticed all the extra attention.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has existed, in some form or another, since 1862. President Lincoln established it at the same time as the Morrill Land Grant that established all the state colleges with a mandate requiring them to train and support farmers.
It was also under his direction that the departmental seal reads, “Agriculture is the foundation of manufacture and commerce,” above a shock of corn (maize) and a moldboard (sod-buster) plow. It also happens to be the organization that spawned the FDA in the early 20th century and brought you
the school lunch program.
It should come as no surprise that the agency has changed a bit over time. Once being responsible for educating farmers about the latest advances in agronomy as discovered by home-grown agricultural scientists, it is now responsible for running the massive “anti-hunger” system that dispenses surplus
food the agency purchased from growers growing “program crops” every year but two since 1950.
It’s either dispense with a perishable commodity or transform it for easier storage. By the early 1980s, the US was storing over 625 million pounds of cheese, valued at $2 billion (in 1981 dollars – about $5 billion dollars of processed cheese today) that was held in taxpayer supported cold-storage to the tune of $100 million ($255 million today) per year. It was stored for long enough that 44 million pounds went moldy in a single year alone before the concept of “welfare cheese” was born, continuing until dairy market subsidies were discontinued in 1999.
That’s just one example of how an economic policy became the caloric basis of a diet for millions of people who might have otherwise made healthier choices. The social impacts of using a branch of the government to dump unhealthy and potentially micro-toxic food on the most vulnerable members of the population could be considered eugenic if it were done on purpose. As usual, ignorance of the larger issues at hand will suffice at the highest levels.
Producers of specialty crops, including nearly all vegetables (not potatoes destined for processing), whole grains, fruits and nuts have gone out of their way, time and time again to ask the USDA to not offer subsidies such as those used with “program crops” (aka commodities). Despite this, officials at the USDA have become more interested in the “specialty” producers who grow the wide variety of foods that are required for proper human health, much to the worry of many people who
are just scraping by in the new local food economy that has grown up in the last decade, despite a sharp turn in agricultural policy at the highest levels since 2000.
In fact, the nuances of farm bill policy are the very same decisions that lead to taxpayer monies being used to buy gains that are produced at below a value fixed every year as the “parity price.” With us since the 1933 farm bill, the parity price for each program-supported commodity crop is calculated against the real price of a pair of pants (among other household goods) in
But, those specialty producers are now starting to bring a lot more money in as a larger segment of consumers have begun to consider how food and nutrition affects not only their sensory and interpersonal lives, but also, how their overall health, economic solvency and longevity are affected (http://www.slowfoodusa.org/) .
The debate continues as lawmakers are due to begin meeting behind closed doors to iron out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the 2007 Farm Bill throughout the month of January. Extra pressure from external forces such as the WTO will certainly add urgency
to the situation that commodity farms hope will be addressed by the spring.