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.