Michael Pollan On The Farm Bill

We all know what the Farm Bill is, don’t we?

Well, in case we don’t, Michael Pollan steps up to the plate and explains the history of it, the significance of it, and the particulars of the 2007 Farm Bill in his recent OpEd piece, “Weed It and Reap.” He notes in his well-reasoned essay that this year’s farm bill is different than those in the past, because this time around, Americans are actually paying attention to what is going into it and are making their feelings known about the issues of what they want on their plates.

Americans have begun to ask why the farm bill is subsidizing high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils at a time when rates of diabetes and obesity among children are soaring, or why the farm bill is underwriting factory farming (with subsidized grain) when feedlot wastes are polluting the countryside and, all too often, the meat supply. For the first time, the public health community has raised its voice in support of overturning farm policies that subsidize precisely the wrong kind of calories (added fat and added sugar), helping to make Twinkies cheaper than carrots and Coca-Cola competitive with water. Also for the first time, the international development community has weighed in on the debate, arguing that subsidized American exports are hobbling cotton farmers in Nigeria and corn farmers in Mexico.

This is a sign that Americans have begun waking up to the fact that our agricultural system is skewed toward corporate profit at the expense of the environment, small family farms, public health and diversity in food choices. However, public awareness is only half of the battle. The public not only has to be aware of the issues at hand in the formation of the farm bill, but also has to have some idea of -what to do- about what they want and need the farm bill to cover.

After noting that the 2007 version of the farm bill is as filled with corporate welfare as every other one in recent memory, with large subsidies once again going out to growers of large commodity crops–corn, soy, rice, wheat and cotton–which are used in the production of much of the fat and sugar-laden processed food which has been blamed for the obesity and related diabetes epidemic, Pollan asks how this could possibly happen, and then answers himself succinctly.

…farm bill critics did a far better job demonizing subsidies, and depicting commodity farmers as welfare queens, than they did proposing alternative — and politically appealing — forms of farm support. And then the farm lobby did what it has always done: bought off its critics with “programs.” For that reason “Americans who eat” can expect some nutritious crumbs from the farm bill, just enough to ensure that reform-minded legislators will hold their noses and support it.

It’s an old story: the “hunger lobby” gets its food stamps so long as the farm lobby can have its subsidies. Similar, if less lavish, terms are now being offered to the public health and environmental “interests” to get them on board. That’s why there’s more money in this farm bill for nutrition programs and, for the first time, about $2 billion to support “specialty crops” — farm-bill-speak for the kind of food people actually eat. (Since California grows most of the nation’s specialty crops, this was the price for the state delegation’s support. Cheap indeed!)

There’s also money for the environment: an additional $4 billion in the Senate bill to protect wetlands and grasslands and reward farmers for environmental stewardship, and billions in the House bill for environmental cleanup. There’s an important provision in both bills that will make it easier for schools to buy food from local farmers. And there’s money to promote farmers’ markets and otherwise support the local food movement.

But as important as these programs are, they are just programs — mere fleas on the elephant in the room. The name of that elephant is the commodity title, the all-important subsidy section of the bill. It dictates the rules of the entire food system. As long as the commodity title remains untouched, the way we eat will remain unchanged….

However many worthwhile programs get tacked onto the farm bill to buy off its critics, they won’t bring meaningful reform to the American food system until the subsidies are addressed — until the underlying rules of the food game are rewritten. This is a conversation that the Old Guard on the agriculture committees simply does not want to have, at least not with us.

What can be done about this big knotty mess of corporate agricultural interests tangled with typical bureaucratic unwillingness to embrace change which is crippling citizens’ ability to enact a change in the way in which our country eats for the better?

My feeling is that the more people who are able to opt out of the typical American diet of highly processed foods and fast foods, who do so, the better. We consumers can still vote with our pocketbooks, and if we can afford to, and have the choice, I think it behooves us to put more of our food dollars into the pockets of local farmers who produce food ethically and sustainably. The more of us who get off the corporate food merry-go-round the better, not only for ourselves, our local economy and our environment, but also for the good of our children’s futures.

Think about it. What kind of world are our kids going to inherit if they have Type II diabetes brought on by extremely unhealthy diets? How are they going to function in a world where the food supply is tainted with bacteria, chemicals and antibiotics because profit is valued more than food safety? What kind of land will they live on if much of the countryside is polluted with agricultural chemicals, with waterways and air equally poisoned?

Anyway, if you really care about food, read Pollan’s article, and then, if you feel so inclined, contact Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with your concerns.


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  1. We can also contact our own senators and ask them to support payment limits within the Grassley-Dorgan Amendment. We can also ask our senators to vote yes on the Lugar-Lautenberg Amendment, which provides an alternate means of support for farmers and redirects savings into nutrition and conservation.

    Comment by Holly — November 5, 2007 #

  2. Thanks so much for the link and the summary. Michael Pollan is one of my favorite food writers and this editorial was insightful, well written and persuasive. I’m glad people are finally starting to pay attention to the farm bill! It was really an eye opener reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma and learning how much farm subsidies have done to make corn and corn syrup a ubiquitous ingredient in almost everything. We also have to keep in mind that promoting a monoculture, like the farm bill does, reduces our food security as a country and our ability to adapt to changing climate.

    Comment by Shannon — November 6, 2007 #

  3. Off topic, but I thought this would be of interest to you:
    (about how people should be eating food, rather than nutrients).

    Comment by magid — November 6, 2007 #

  4. Thanks for posting about this. I had missed this editorial. I think Pollan has a lot of really smart things to say on this issue.

    Comment by Laura — November 6, 2007 #

  5. Magid–thank you for posting that link–yes, it is of interest to me.

    It gives a bit more credence to what I have been saying for years, which is eat a varied diet of primarily whole foods, eat less meat and more vegetables and grains, and avoid large amounts of most sugars, but most of all, keep away from high fructose corn syrup and artificially hydrogenated fats.

    Comment by Barbara — November 7, 2007 #

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