“Weed It and Reap”: Michael Pollan shreds current Farm Bill in the New York Times

Michael Pollan has an op-ed in today's New York Times that explains, in his trademark clear, wry style, why the current version of the Farm Bill the Senate is preparing to pass is "very much a farm bill in the traditional let-them-eat-high-fructose-corn-syrup mold."

If you've been trying to talk to friends and family about why they should care about this previously obscure, ridiculously complicated $288 billion piece of legislation — given that the country is enmired in war, the White House is busily rewriting the Constitution, and the media's way more interested in the 2008 Homecoming Queen election presidential race — this is the summary you've been waiting for.

Sure, the current Farm Bill language includes a bit more money here and there for worthy programs like food stamps, conservation, a farm-to-school-lunch program, etc. But as Pollan says, they're "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."

Pollan argues that the Farm Bill's would-be reformers did a better job vilifying the subsidy system and the "welfare queen" farmers who benefit from it than they did offering a viable alternative. There's some truth to that. The biggest beneficiaries of our absolutely un-free market for corn, soy, and other commodities are not farmers, even corporate ones, but the giant agribusiness entities who sell them pesticides and equipment (hello, Monsanto, Bayer, et al) and who get to buy their ingredients for processed food and animal fodder at cheaper-than-dirt prices (like Archer Daniels Midland, Kraft, Cargill, Coke, and McDonald’s).

The Farm Bill is for five more years. There are two amendments expected to come to the Senate floor this week that, if they pass, might somewhat avert this national-policy train wreck: the Dorgan-Grassley proposal, which is expected to cap payments to any one farmer at $250,000, and Lugar's Fresh Act, which would euthanize the current elephantine subsidy system altogether and replace it with a form of free crop-revenue insurance. Most of the sustainable-ag folks who know better than us are asking us to support Dorgan-Grassley.

Sorry to sound like a broken record, but yep, it's time to call your senators again (better than emailing) and urge them to vote for one of these. (Me, I like the Fresh Act Dorgan-Grassley*.) And send Pollan's column to everyone you know who might do so, too. If it gets to the top of the Times's Most Emailed List, maybe your senator's staff will know what you're talking about when you call.

*Updated to correct Farm Bill dyslexia, as my coffee had not yet kicked in, apparently.

3 Responsesto ““Weed It and Reap”: Michael Pollan shreds current Farm Bill in the New York Times”

  1. Farm Bill Girl says:

    Please do NOT support the FRESH Act!!!!

    Anyone who knows anything about family farmers should know better than to trust Richard Lugar. A good man in many ways (esp on foreign policy), he is agribusiness’s BEST friend and an ardent free trader. Free trade and the WTO is what directly undermines food sovereignty, local food, and sustainable agriculture. It gives preference to the cheapest ingredients sourced from around the world, and pits farmers everywhere in a race to the bottom (see the 1 million farmers driven off the land in Mexico by NAFTA).

    I understand people have frustrations with the current system and like to demonize commodity farmers. They have to realize that Lugar was the one who authored the infamous 1996 radical deregulatory Freedom to Farm Act that was supposed to get rid of the government and let the “free market” decide the prices for commodities. Lugar also in that Farm bill gutted all the major victories the family farm movement achieved in the 1987 Agriculture Credit Act that prevented thousands of farmers from being foreclosed on by the banks.

    Lugar’s bill is a wholesale privatization of the farm system. It is akin to saying let’s get rid of Medicare/Medicaid and just let everyone buy and rely on private insurance. and we know how great private insurance is not for consumers, but for HMO profits. After the 1996 Farm Bill, prices (predictably) collapsed, as there were no more price floors for commodities. Corn collapsed to $1.50 in some areas, the same price as in 1970s when Earl Butz first started his “fencerow to fencerow” policies! Who benefitted? ADM/Cargill/Smithfield and the buyers and processors of cheap commodities. It was in the late 90s that CAFOs expanded massively in many communities, directly tied to and made possible by the collapse in corn prices.

    Thus, Congress then had to bail out the farmers with emergency and expensive payments and instituted the countercylical program in 2002.

    Lugar’s FRESH Act would essentially deregulate prices once again for commodities. Farmers would not know how low prices can be driven. ADM/Cargill/Tyson/Smithfield will be ecstatic to know there is no longer ANY sort of price floor for commodities. Crop insurance companies will be made quite rich by the taxpayer subsidies.

    And thus, the way would be paved for more “free trade” agreements, more cheap imports from China and Peru. Advocates fighting for the FRESH agreement on local and healthy foods grounds would be far better off opposing the upcoming Peru FTA, which will further devastate our specialty crop industry (esp. in asparagus and onions) while expanding factory farm meat and industrial agriculture in Peru. It’s very frustrating to see reformers not realize that by jumping into bed with the likes of the Business Roundtable and CATO Institute and eliminating subsidies, all in the name of being more WTO compliant and “trade” friendly, they are simply doing the bidding of ConAgra and ADM and Smithfield and latching onto an ideology that is directly at odds with the goals we all espouse.

  2. Bonnie P. says:

    Farm Bill Girl: I moved your comment here, to the post I think you meant to attach it to (not the Devil's Food Dictionary). I'm also embarrassed that nobody else caught my Farm Bill dyslexia -- I actually meant to type that I am supporting Dorgan-Grassley, not the Fresh Act.

    While I do think that the subsidy system needs to be done away with, I agree with you that relying on crop insurance would be disastrous. We should move to a model that rewards environmental stewardship and offers a combination of loans and strategic reserves (for price support) that will act as a true safety net.

    Thanks for the well thought-out discussion, and for catching my slip o' the keyboard.

  3. mimu says:

    On this one, it's the small family farmer's who have my ear (I use my own mouth) and they are organized here: http://www.farmland.org/default.asp