Farmers throughout the country are experiencing one of the worst droughts in 50 years. It’s times like these that federal farm policy is most appreciated. After all, regardless of crop yields we all still need to eat, and having a thriving agricultural economy that sustains our natural resources and provides farmers with an adequate income is the best way to protect our food supply now and into the future.
Two of the primary titles of the Farm Bill, the commodity and crop insurance titles, are specifically intended to support a profitable and stable farming economy. The political process, however, tends to create policies that often deviate from the stated intentions. Crop insurance and many commodity programs have been designed to support large-scale commodity production, and thereby have created disincentives for smaller-scale and diversified cropping systems, as well as ineffective support systems for organic and direct-marketing farmers. The end result is that the crops grown in the U.S. have little correlation to the foods needed for a healthy diet.
U.S. agriculture is continuing a longstanding trend toward bigger, more industrial farms with less crop diversity, and federal farm policy often contributes to this trajectory. While this trajectory’s footprint on the agricultural landscape is clear, the impact on the U.S. diet is not well studied. After all, health advocates have plenty of other policies in USDA’s purview to keep an eye on, from food stamps to school lunch to food safety. Why should public health advocates spend time advocating for particular farm commodity programs when the path from farm (to grain buyer to food processor to retail store) to consumer is so convoluted?
Despite the difficulty in drawing parallels between farm policies and public health, these policies impact our eating habits in ways that are rarely considered. The food industry often counters that changes in the price of corn have a rather small impact on the overall cost of a box of cereal or a pound of hamburger, and thereby have minimal impact on buying decisions. This perspective, however, fails to consider the multiple points at which corporations are making decisions that impact what we eat. Changes in the relative costs of different commodities encourage food processors to reformulate a processed food product, restaurants to tweak their menu, and perhaps most importantly, marketers to promote food products that are most profitable. It’s no accident that grocery stores dedicate valuable shelving to a mindboggling array of soda pop, cereal and snack foods—these foods use low-cost commodities like corn and wheat and provide enormous profit margins. While we consumers generally have the final say in what we put into our bodies, economic and policy drivers throughout the food chain have more impact on our decisions than what we realize.
In this series, we’ll be taking a look at the different plans for commodity programs and crop insurance that are on the table for the current Farm Bill. We’ll attempt to assess the impacts that changes in these programs may have on how we eat. Although the cause-and-effect relationships are poorly documented, we’ll do our best to draw from existing studies—along with a healthy dose of common sense.
Stay tuned over the next several weeks as we look at emerging farm policy.
Photo used under creative commons license from Rajesh_India.
Yesterday more than 300 people gathered on an unseasonably warm January day at a conference center outside of Minneapolis to talk about food, farming and health. The conference, State of the Plate: Minnesota Healthy Food Futures, was co-hosted by IATP, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Minnesota and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The event included national figures like Dr. Kelly Brownell of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and Anne Haddix from the CDC, as well as state leaders like Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger and University of Minnesota’s Dr. Mary Story—as well as community, public health and food activists.
Much of the discussions centered on the important role health professionals need to play in advocating for a healthier food system, whether at the community or state and federal policy level. Dr. Brownell argued that our children are being robbed of their future. For the first time in history, the current generation of children, he said, is expected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents, largely due to diet-related disease. Instead, Dr. Brownell said in his keynote to attendees, we need to make healthy food the “optimal default”—or put more simply, the easiest food to access.
Other topics covered at the conference included the role of the food system in health, the existing food environment, the challenges for farmers to grow healthy food and the social justice implications of our food system. See our interview with Dr. Kelly Brownell below or check out some photos from the event on IATP’s Flickr. - Ben Lilliston
Part of the collateral damage of the backroom Farm Bill being written in Congress is that new – and good – ideas get subsumed in the chaos. We shouldn’t let that happen to the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act introduced this week by Representative Chellie Pingree and Senator Sherrod Brown.
The bill’s explicit goal is to strengthen local and regional food systems. It’s about time, right? The bill helps farmers who are selling to local and regional markets by improving and expanding credit, insurance and risk management tools. It will boost job creation by providing greater resources for much needed infrastructure, like local processing and distribution, through rural and community grants and loans. And it links consumers with healthy food by expanding access to farmers markets for SNAP recipients and increasing the capacity of schools, hospitals and nursing homes to purchase locally.
Strengthening local and regional food systems for farmers and consumers may seem like common sense – but remarkably, it’s quite the opposite of what U.S. farm policy has been designed to do over the last several decades. U.S. agribusiness companies have relentlessly focused on building a global agriculture market through past Farm Bills and free trade agreements. Where food was produced, how it was produced, and who produced it was viewed as immaterial. This agribusiness-driven global system has successfully overwhelmed local and regional food systems – not only in the U.S., but around the world – at an enormous cost to the world’s farmers, the environment and public health.
The Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act is an important first step in developing new policies to support farmers and consumers. The cost is tiny compared to other parts of the Farm Bill. But the payoff for those who believe in a fair and healthy food system could be much bigger.