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A Commons-Defining Bill

July 2007

What single bill – albeit with a great many tentacles – currently sits before Congress and will define the future of so much of the commons – our land use, soil and water quality, the future of our rural communities?

Look no further than the tip of your fork: the Farm Bill.

Michael Pollan, in the New York Times magazine, April 22, 2007, described it this way: “This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation…sets the rules for the American food system – indeed to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system.”

The Farm Bill works hand-in-glove with other marvels of free trade like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Again Pollan:  “The flow of immigrants north from Mexico since NAFTA is inextricably linked to the flow of American corn in the opposite direction, a flood of subsidized grain that the Mexican government estimates has thrown two million Mexican farmers and other agricultural workers off the land since the mid-90s.”

Many of us attending a conference hosted by the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders entitled, “Our Evolving Food System: Perspectives from the Heartland,” had the occasion to meet with two of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin’s staffers – Tom Moreland and Ellen Huntoon. Senator Harkin is Chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, which is in the throes of marking up the Farm Bill scheduled to be voted on this fall.

We spoke for and with those pesky small and organic farmers, unhappy with how recent farm bills top off the tank of gas-guzzling, highly-concentrated forms of industrial agriculture.  Many Iowan farmers benefit from the overproduction and cheap corn distortions of the Farm Bill’s subsidy program as is.  But a vocal minority (in alliance with other farmers around the country, consumers and environmental groups) is pushing for a Farm Bill based on supply management (curb overproduction to keep supply higher and stable) and that might usher in a sustainable food system. One concrete proposal is the National Family Farm Coalition’s Food from Family Farm Act.

Harkin’s staffers suggested a few changes to the Farm Bill that might inch U.S. agriculture towards a semblance of sustainability: 1) capping subsidies so growers aren’t given perverse incentives to grow tens of thousands of acres of a single crop; 2) fully implementing the conservation reserve program (land set-asides to restore the health of ecosystems and dissuade over-production); and 3) bringing energy more fully into the farm bill – meaning offering incentives for biofuels production.  I’ll talk more about this in a future blog.

While capping subsidies received praise, it may in practical terms be less significant for the upcoming period. Corn prices have spiked due to demand for corn for ethanol production — although they could bust at any time. The subsidies cover the difference between the market price and the cost of production. Subsidies would diminish as the price of corn rises.

The conservation set-asides in the Farm Bill are a huge sigh of relief to ecosystems coughing from too much pesticide use, soil disturbance and water draw-down. But that conservation program is under-funded, Harkin’s staffers lamented. And perversely, the ethanol boom threatens to bring some conservation set-asides back into production. It’s hard to pass up $4 a bushel of corn, especially when you’ve been receiving $2 in recent years.

An exasperated hydrologist in our group asked how can we even begin to speak about sustainable agriculture if water is priced anywhere from a few bucks to a few hundred bucks for an acre foot (the amount of water necessary to cover an acre a foot deep or 325,000 gallons). Hmm, even at the high end, say $300, that comes out to .0009 cents per gallon which doesn’t look anything like what I pay for my water. If big growers are protected from the real price of water (a price we urgently need to calculate – one that factors in the increasing scarcity of water, cost of treatment, cost of extending water networks to those that go without), of course they’ll use technologies and practices that draw down and contaminate aquifers and surface water. The price of water’s relationship to the Farm Bill stumped Harkin’s aides – water is mostly in states’ jurisdictions, they said.

Harkin’s aides did offer some hope about extending crop insurance to non-commodity products like vegetables. Currently, US Department of Agriculture crop insurance fully covers only a small number of commodity crops like corn and soybeans. These days, if you lose your broccoli in an early freeze, you’re out of luck. Diverse crop insurance would provide an incentive for farmers to diversify what they grow – a win for the farmer, the consumer, the environment and food security in general.

What about dumping, we asked — when U.S. food companies export crops at below their cost of production and drive small farmers out of business?  Amazingly, there is a helpful proposal about this from an unusual source: the Bush Administration. The proposal is to allow 25% of our food aid to be offered in cash for in-country purchase rather than having our grains shipped halfway around the world. Critics have argued for years that our food aid program frequently resembles first and foremost an agribusiness boondoogle, and only secondarily an anti-hunger program that builds the capacity of countries to feed themselves.

In the push and pull of Farm Bill politicking, Harkin’s aides said, every Senator represents at least some small number of farmers. Not so in the House of Representatives. Scores of reps don’t have any rural constituency. They might use their Farm Bill vote as a bargaining chip for future votes on a pet project. However, Michael Pollan points out that with nutrition and environmental programs embedded in it, “The Farm Bill is a misnomer; in truth, it is a food bill and so needs to be rewritten with the interests of eaters placed first….At a minimum, these eaters want a bill that aligns agricultural policy with our public-health and environmental values, one with incentives to produce food cleanly, sustainably and humanely.” Every law maker has constituents and ecosystems in their district whose health relies on the Farm Bill.

Average citizens also ignore the Farm Bill at their peril. We all need a fair Farm Bill that, as the final declaration from the recent Forum on Food Sovereignty in Mali stated, puts “those who produce, distribute, and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”

It’s summertime.  Enjoy the vegetable and fruit bounty.  But when you’re done picking corn kernels out of your teeth, grab the phone while the Farm Bill is still taking shape. Counter the powerful agribusiness lobby by giving your representative an earful.

An additional Resources: IATP’s “A Fair Farm Bill for the World.” 

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