I went to a talk on Tuesday all about the Farm Bill. Have I lost anyone yet?
For liking food so much, I don't know much about the farm bill so I took this as an opportunity to learn and I'd thought I'd share some of my thoughts from the evening. The featured speaker was Daniel Imhoff, author extradonaire. He's written such books as Food Fight - The Citizen's Guide to a Farm and Food Bill, CAFO - The Tragedy of Industrialized Animal Factories, and Farming with the Wild - Enhancing Biodiversity on Farms and Ranches. I hadn't heard a word in my life before this about Daniel Imhoff but these are some pretty awesome books and he has some really interesting things to say about the farm bill and food and farming in our country.
Here are a few interesting pieces of information I learned right off the bat. First, if you could summarize the farm bill with a dollar bill, 70 cents of it would first go to nutrition. Nutrition is the government's way of saying food stamps. Forty million Americans are on food stamps and the farm bill directly supports this effort to feed America's poor. About 20 cents goes to commodity crops. When the farm bill started, over a 100 crops were subsidized by the government. Today, the government subsidizes just a handful including corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, and rice. Roughly ten percent of the farm bill goes to supporting conservation, mainly programs supporting the Wetlands Reserve Program and Conservation Stewardship Program.
The farm bill has an interesting history. It originated during the Great Depression to help farmers and people struggling in America to feed themselves. By paying farmers for surplus food, farmers were able to keep farming and the hungry were able to be fed. In the 1940's, the Child Nutrition Act was passed creating the school lunch program we are familiar with today. The military needed strong, young men to fight in World World II and many were malnourished until this program was started. Over the next several decades, farming became a big business in this country as our farming techniques begin to industrialize. The average farm size grew bigger than ever before and the farmers that remained through these trends are most likely growing one of the commodity crops mentioned above. These are the crops that feed the majority. Interestingly enough, Daniel Imhoff noted during his talk, that in farm bill speak, a speciality crop means fruits and vegetables. Something is definitely wrong with that! Essentially, what we are told to eat (the food pyramid we all know, fruits and vegetables rank highest for what we should be eating most) is directly inverted to how we farm in this country and where our farm subsidies go. And this folks is where the farm bill turns into a food fight!
At the end of the talk, Daniel Imhoff fielded an interesting question with an interesting answer. Someone asked, "With budget cuts facing just about every program in the country, why aren't we also cutting military spending? How does the farm bill play into this?" Imhoff addressed that question by saying the military is potentially our biggest ally in working for a better farm bill. Not the answer I was expecting! Remember how I mentioned the beginnings of the school lunch program, young men were too malnourished to fight and the country needed to change this? It was in our national interest back then to have strong, healthy young fighters. Young military recruits today, are increasingly struggling to pass fitness tests because they are too fat. More and more, the young generation of today is too fat to fight! In the 1940s, our young soldiers needed a nutrition boost. Like those soldiers, the youth of today are in need of one too! A boost consisting of fruits and vegetables, not high fructose corn syrup. The military is also concerned about CAFOs, or confined animal feeding lots. The majority of meat (chickens, turkeys, pigs, and beef) we eat in this country is processed through just thirteen slaughter houses. The military recognizes that these operations are terrible breeding grounds for disease and could potentially be grounds for a terrorism attack, given how quickly disease can spread from one location to the mouths of millions of Americans.
The farm bill isn't just for farmers or big business. The farm bill affects us all. Food is central to our well being and so are the practices of how we farm including the people and systems themselves. Our diets have changed dramatically over the last several decades for the worse and it is time that we demand healthier options. Our government should be subsidizing healthy options not unhealthy ones. People in Washington, Oregon, and California are working together to create a movement to fight for a better farm bill. If you wish to learn more about it or get involved, I've included some links to explore.
blog image: Watershed Media