A Farm Bill to Improve Our Health
“We need to get the Farm Bill renamed the Food and Farm Bill!” claimed Andrew Weil, M.D., the celebrity integrative medicine guru, at a fund-raising dinner thrown this week in San Francisco by the Environmental Working Group. “Itís a hugely important piece of legislation that affects our health and the costs of health-care”, he added.
One big function of the Farm Bill is to allocate subsidies to farmers. And as it stands today, it “makes unhealthy foods cheap, and healthy foods expensive”, as Andrew Weil pointed out.
Fresh vegetable consumption has declined by nine pounds per person over the past ten years in the United States. Despite the Federal nutritional guidelines that recommend we eat five-to-nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day, taxpayers’ money has been channeled quasi-exclusively to promote commodity crops with no public health benefit whatsoever.
And yet, the Farm Bill should really be called the “Nutrition Bill”, as Ken Cook, president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, put it this week at the Earth Dinner. For its biggest fund allocation is the food-stamp program (SNAP), tagged at 314 billion dollars in the 2008-2012 Bill for 44 million eligible individuals, half of whom are children. The 4.5-billion-dollar Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, designed to provide more healthful school meals to a great number of students and signed into law by President Obama last December, is to be funded with the same pool of money.
The Farm Bill is debated and voted by Congress every five years. Its latest installment allocated 60 billion dollars to farmers who grow commodities–corn, soybeans, cotton, rice and wheat. These mostly provide cheap feed for livestock and biofuel processing, as well as raw material for highly processed, nutrient-empty foods. No fresh produce grower benefits from such government generosity. Furthermore, subsidies reward scale and monocrops. As such, they’re considered to provide industrial agriculture with a huge and unfair advantage.
As Congressional conversations have already gone under way ahead of next’s year vote on the new Bill, health and nutrition advocates have started mobilizing, joined by sustainable farming activists and local foodsheds supporters, with a view of shifting the priorities enacted in the next Bill.
“Power, money, bad traditions and bad attitudes have been ruling the Farm Bill”, said Ken Cook in San Francisco. He showed two maps to demonstrate how broken the system is. On the first one, the Bay Area disappeared under a thick blanket of pins designating farm-subsidy recipients–no matter that the region’s farms† were notoriously displaced long ago by† urban development. On the second map, the middle of the country was colored in red, indicating the location of the 22 districts that received half of all subsidies between 1995 and 2004, out of a total of 435 (see above).
Needless to say that the 2012 electoral climate is going to provide a most challenging context for the proponents of a Farm Bill built on new priorities. Their foolhardy enterprise is bound to pit them against the usual suspects. The American Farm Bureau, a powerful lobby in Washington that represents mostly the interests of the big farms and is a staunch supporter of the subsidies, is not about to let go of its grip over the current system. Interestingly enough, 23 Congress members are so entrenched in the latter as to have collected, either directly or through their family, over 5.8 million dollars of farm subsidies between 1995 and 2009 (91.6% of it went to 17 Republicans, six Democrats shared the rest).
Yet, there are also reasons to be optimistic. Unbeknowst to most of us, the Farm Bill funnels the largest amount of Federal funding to conservation programs: 22 billion dollars were thus invested through the last† Bill. “And that’s only because outsiders [i.e. environmental and conservation advocates] insisted on it!” stressed Ken Cook.
“How about allocating 1 billion dollars to salad-bars in every school in the country? Let’s get kids hooked on good, healthy food, and reap huge health-care costs savings in the future!Ē he continued.
Maybe that’s not that far-fetched of a goal. According to Andrew Weil, all it would take for the elected officials to be swayed by public opinion is the mobilization of just 5% of us. Why does he suggest this? Because that’s what it took for the European Union to impose a moratorium on GMO in 1998. It may be† wishful and somewhat naive, but we need all the scraps of encouraging signs available to remind ourselves that anything is actually possible if we, citizens of this big nation, put our collective mind to it.