Friday, July 13, 2007

Farm Bill 2007 - Reality Check, Part 3

Public health organizations are asking some very good questions—do food and agricultural policies contribute to the proliferation of unhealthy foods in our stores and restaurants? And why are corn and soybeans, which provide a large percentage of U.S. sweeteners and oils, so much cheaper than healthier crops like fruits and vegetables? The answer is fairly simple—because food companies and the folks in Washington want it that way.

Every five years, Congress and the White House roll out a new Farm Bill amid grand rhetoric about uplifting "America's family farmers and ranchers." Meanwhile, the food industry consolidates, farm numbers drop as those remaining grow in size while rural economies wither. Cram the bill with enough disparate provisions, obfuscate corporate giveaways, and food-justice advocates and farmers alike are perplexed. That's a shame.
The Farm Bill's 10 titles exert a dramatic influence on the U.S. food system. Under Title I, the provision that is supposed to protect farmers from market swings, the federal government has been doling out an average of $11.3 billion annually propping up industrial agriculture between 1995 and 2004. More than 90 percent goes to producers of corn, cotton, wheat, rice, and soybeans, with just 10 percent of farms receiving 74 percent of these subsidies. These large-scale farms aren't producing food and fiber directly for U.S. consumers, but rather inputs in an industrialized global production chain. These five crops are dramatically overproduced and typically sell on global markets at below production cost, imposing hardships on farmers worldwide while enriching transnational food-industry giants. Fruit and vegetable growers-and the vast majority of small and mid-sized farms-get not a penny.

Government food pricing data clearly demonstrates the end result. Since 1985, the real price of fresh fruits and vegetables has increased nearly 40 percent, while the real price of sweets, fats and oils, and soft drinks has dropped. With these price signals, is it any wonder people are not eating enough produce and too many calorie-dense foods? We have made consuming junk food an economically smart choice, particularly for people with limited income.

Rural communities have been hit hard by U.S. agriculture policy, as we’ve steadily lost farmers and those who continue rely largely on off-farm income to keep farming. Our public health has suffered as well. The extensive use of cheap commodities in food products has resulted in added sugars and fats that fall into the very dietary categories linked to obesity. High fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated vegetable oils—products that did not even exist a few generations ago but now are hard to avoid—have proliferated thanks to artificially cheap corn and soybeans.

Fast food, an important lobby, has entered the fray. Yum! Brands, owner of KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Long John Silver's, is leading a coalition of fast-food companies including McDonald's and Wendy's lobbying to make the Farm Bill "WTO-compliant." Most likely either the 2002 Farm Bill will be temporarily extended, after which time subsidy payments will eventually be phased out, with no additional safety net for farmers, save perhaps subsidies for ethanol feedstock crops which benefit large producers such as Archer Daniels Midland.

Policy emanating from Washington for decades-both domestically and through global institutions including the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN-has pressured farmers to scale up to produce for a vast global agricultural commodity market. Multinational food-processing giants like Archer Daniels Midland have thrived, while farm incomes have stagnated or dropped, and public health has languished even in the global north. Meanwhile, local food production has withered with people relying on food of dubious qual-ity, grown and processed at great distances. The agendas put forward by Daryll Ray and American Farmland Trust, broadly represent ideas coming from other progressive farming groups, and deserve the active support of food-justice activists. They would likely boost U.S. farm incomes without harming farmers in the global south. But at this point, the real hope for revitalizing local food production networks lies in grassroots organizing. Farm Bill entitlements could raise family farm incomes, support small rural and urban businesses in the food systems, and create more jobs through the growing and sales of local fresh fruit and vegetables.

From the USDAs Farm Bill website: "The 2007 farm bill proposals spend approximately $10 billion less than the cost of the 2002 farm bill over the past five years (excluding ad-hoc disaster aid) and uphold the President's plan to eliminate the deficit in five years. (ahem, bullshit.) These proposals authorize approximately $5 billion more than the projected spending if the 2002 farm bill were extended. "
Bottom line, the domestic food scene is another Iraq, and it's happening right now.