Compared to the sparks and heat usually coming out of Congress, the Farm Bill sounds pretty innocuous. After all, who doesn’t like farms? Who among us city dwellers doesn’t occasionally long to leave the concrete jungle for the rural idyll? And besides, how could we oppose helping our producers make a living while they put food on our tables? At first glance, the Farm Bill seems the perfect candidate to sail through Congress with bipartisan support, the perhaps only piece of legislation in recent history that can unify us around shared values.
But the second glance tells a different story. As anyone who’s read The Omnivore’s Dilemma knows, since the 1970s the Farm Bill has practically demanded farmers produce as much of five staple crops as possible (those crops are corn, soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton, which together earn 90% of the Farm Bill commodity support expenditures). Marketing loans allow farmers to ignore market signals by setting floor prices and heavily subsidized insurance programs encourage risky productions choices, including the environmentally damaging practice of planting on marginal land. Perhaps worst of all, the richest farmers benefit the most, putting the lie to this corporate welfare charade.
The immediate result of such distortion is a flood of cheap, often nutritionally-poor calories that are converted in an array of processed foods and sugary drinks whose artificially low prices undercut fruits, vegetables and other healthier options. The long-term result is a nation of malnourished, overweight people suffering from diabetes and heart disease and a health care system in crisis. To a dramatic degree, the Farm Bill shapes America’s diet, her waistline and her future.
Given the consequences of the Farm Bill, one might surmise that Congress spends a long time weighing costs and benefits before foisting it upon us. But in the parallel universe of Washington DC, that’s not quite how things work. Instead, in a open conspiracy to limit debate and build false unity, Congress has for decades lumped the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps) into the Farm Bill (in fact, SNAP and its associated programs make up nearly 80% of Farm Bill expenditures). The inner city representative and her rural Midwestern colleague both get a little something, so when the Farm Bill rubber stamp rolls around no one says much of substance and the Bill slides through, though “unity around shared values” is not exactly the cause. When the dust settles, all the American people find out is that another “Farm Bill” passed, and it sounds pretty innocuous.
What the American people need is clarity. Clarity on the Farm Bill, how it works and how we pay for it (in money, health and otherwise) is a prerequisite to intelligent reform. But clarity will only come with debate, and we’ll only get debate when our representatives vote on each piece of the Bill separately (Senator Johnson (R-WI) introduced a motion to split the bill into an agriculture support bill and a nutrition bill, but it failed). When the inner city representative has to explain her vote for agro-corporate welfare to constituents that’ll never see a nickel from that vote, we’ll hear a lot more about if and how we should subsidize agriculture. Now that the 2012 Bill is stalled in the House until at least November, our representatives have another chance to split the Bill into at least two, one on agriculture support and one on nutrition. They should take that chance and open a dialogue that’s long overdue.
None of this is to say that government help for farmers is always bad. Farmers are vulnerable and valuable in ways other companies and industries are not. But the Bill can be made much better. As long as our representatives stay mum rather than debate what is in effect our national food strategy, we’ll stay stuck with a deeply flawed agriculture support program and an ever-expanding national waistline. Congress should have the courage to split the Farm Bill.