The 2008 Farm Bill: Pollan, Eschmeyer on a bittersweet victory

Yesterday Michael Pollan — who, whether he likes it or not is the most widely read spokesperson for the sustainable food movement — sent an email to his list-serv (subscribe here) with his thoughts on the 2008 Farm Bill that finally passed. In short, he thinks that despite the highest levels of activism in a generation, it is “not a very good bill.” (Shocker.)

Food-movement activists and policy critics failed to turn the battleship, says Pollan, because they “did a much better job of demonizing subsidies” than they did coming up with palatable alternative forms of farm support. They alienated conventional farmers with well-publicized comparisons to “welfare queens” and inspired a bunker mentality that prevented any negotiation on the central issues. (I feel the need to note that thanks to our Wonk-in-Chief Elanor, the Ethicurean took a much more nuanced position, pointing out that the problem with this “blame frame” is that the biggest beneficiaries of subsidies are not Big Farma but agribusiness giants like Archer Daniels Midland, Tyson, Cargill and Smithfield.) 

Pollan’s take on the political failure seems accurate:

What the Old Guard did instead of negotiating a new system of farm support was what it has always done: pick off the opposition, faction by faction, by offering money for pet programs. The history of the farm bill has long been about such trade offs: Urban legislators support subsidies in exchange for rural support for food stamps. That Grand Bargain has now been extended to supporters of organic agriculture, local food systems, school lunch advocates, etc. The reason that, in the end, most of the activist groups wound up urging Congress to override the veto is that, by the end, they all had been given something they liked in the bill. You could put it more baldly, and suggest they’d all been bought off — that the $300-plus billion bill represents the exact price of buying off all the critics of the farm bill, plus the cost of maintaining the status quo. But this is how the game is played, and the fact is, some good will come of these programs, modest as they are — they will sow seeds of change and legitimize alternative food chains, or so we can hope.

Pollan passed along an excellent essay written by Ethicurean acquaintance Debra Eschmeyer about the small victories contained in this Farm Bill, and why instead of giving up in frustration, we need to take the seeds that even this crappy Farm Bill has tossed us and plant them now, so that we can do better in 2012.

Debra is the marketing & media manager of the National Farm to School Network and the Center for Food & Justice; she also works a fifth-generation family farm in Ohio, where she raises organic heirloom fruits, vegetables, and chickens. Formerly she was the project director at the National Family Farm Coalition in Washington, DC, where she focused on U.S. agricultural policy and food sovereignty initiatives among grassroots domestic and international rural advocacy and other social justice networks. The essay was written for forthcoming issues of Edible Los Angeles and Touch the Soil. We reprint it here with her permission.

Old MacDonald has a Farm Bill

By Debra Eschmeyer

We’ve all noticed higher grocery bills, but did you know Congress passed a $307 billion Farm Bill in late May that has a much bigger impact on what you will eat for dinner tonight than what you chose to place in the grocery cart?

The Farm Bill has a hand in all that happens before the swallow. The bag of Tyson chicken wings (grain subsidies), gallon of Horizon Organic milk (forward contracting), and pound of Fuji apples (country of origin labeling) are all regulated in some fashion by this policy determining how our food is raised and who profits.

But does the massive legislation support family farmers? Increase food access in urban food deserts? Or feed the 40 million poor and hungry in the United States?

Yes and no. Reauthorized and revamped every five years, farm law has its roots in the 1930’s New Deal efforts to handle the overproduction of agricultural commodities while maintaining stable prices. Although most of the money in the current bill, around 75%, goes to nutrition programs such as food stamps, the politics of writing the bill is still driven by commodities such as corn, rice, wheat, cotton, and soybeans.

One way to interpret farm policy is to follow the money. According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Cargill’s profits increased nearly 1000 percent from $280 million in FY1997-98 to $2.34 billion by FY2006-07. Add to that pile of profits the $35 billion in indirect subsidies that the industrial animal factories (owned and controlled by corporations like Cargill) reaped by being able to buy feed crops at 20-25 percent below the cost of production.

Farm-bloc legislators were challenged this time around to make the connection between the current farm policy’s cheap corn complex and the growing problem of diabetes and obesity. Unfortunately, prior policy plunders were not weeded out of the current farm bill. As the House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) explicitly stated that except for some “minor changes,” the new Farm bBll is “very much like the current law that we have been operating under.”

For those Farm Bill pugilists — sustainable agriculture groups, anti-hunger advocates, faith-based organizations, conservationists, community gardeners, and grassroots family farmer coalitions — that tried to have their voices heard above the industrial agriculture cacophony, the final 2008 Farm Bill is bittersweet. Bitter due to the numerous multifunctional reforms that never came to fruition while corporate agribusiness deepened their roots and sweet for the minor victories for sustainable agriculture, nutrition, and conservation.

The policies that survived through countless revisions, late night conferences, numerous listening sessions, lobbyist wrangling, and earmarks are far from the wish lists various groups envisioned. However, more than one thousand food and farm organizations came together and requested that Congress override the President’s promised veto. As stated in their joint letter to Congress:

“Communities across the nation, from urban to rural, have waited too long for this legislation. The Conference Report makes significant farm policy reforms, protects the safety net for all of America’s food producers, addresses important infrastructure needs for specialty crops, increases funding to feed our nation’s poor, and enhances support for important conservation initiatives. This is by no means a perfect piece of legislation, and none of our organizations achieved everything we had individually requested. However, it is a carefully balanced compromise of policy priorities that has broad support among organizations representing the nation’s agriculture, conservation, and nutrition interests.”

Passing through the House with a margin of 306 to 110 and the Senate 82 to 13, the votes in both chambers were far past the majority needed to defeat President Bush’s veto. Formally called the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, the 673 pages of legislative prowess represent a precarious balancing act of principles and politics.

Below are samples of positive seeds of change planted in the new Farm Bill:

Community Food Projects and Geographic Preferences: The new Farm Bill provides $5 million in mandatory annual funding for innovative Community Food Projects for matching grants to community groups building sustainable local food systems addressing hunger, nutrition, and meeting food security goals. There is also new statutory language clearly stating that preference can be given to local purchasing of agriculture products for schools serving meals that receive federal assistance, resolving a conflict in USDA’s interpretation of the 2002 Farm Bill.

Local Food Initiatives: Another provision provides funding for new local and regional food supply networks including $33 million in mandatory funds for the Farmers Market Promotion Program, $56 million for the Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program, and $1.2 billion to expand the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program that will enable 3 million low income children across the country to have access to healthier food options.

GMO Oversight: New mandates to strengthen USDA oversight of GMO crops will help prevent the disaster that occurred when an unauthorized genetically modified rice strain entered the U.S. rice crop and caused massive losses to export markets. The new regulatory framework will reduce the potential for future GMO contamination events at field trial test sites.

First Ever Livestock Title: Provides much needed protections for independent ranchers and farmers raising livestock under contract, which includes preventing mandatory arbitration clauses for livestock/poultry contracts; allowing a three-day period to cancel contracts; and requiring contracts to disclose the requirement of large capital investments.

Diversity Initiative: The Farm Bill gives significant recognition to the importance of minority and socially disadvantaged farmers. There are specific targets for minority and socially disadvantaged farmer participation in conservation, farm credit, Value Added Producer Grants, and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Programs. Minority Outreach and Education (Section 2501) authorized in the 1990 farm bill receives for the first time mandatory funding at $75 million over 4 years. This competitive grant program to community based organizations and educational institutions helps minority and socially disadvantaged farmers access USDA programs through effective outreach programs.

Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program: Provides $75 million over four years in mandatory money for competitive grants to groups providing technical assistance and other services to beginning farmers and ranchers. This program was created in the 2002 Farm Bill but was never funded.

Country-of-Origin Labeling and Interstate Meat Shipment: The Farm Bill includes language to implement long-awaited COOL requirements for produce, beef, pork, chicken, lamb and goat that will go into effect in September 2008. COOL was included in the 2002 Farm Bill, but food industry, USDA and meatpackers’ opposition have delayed its implementation. There are also provisions allowing for the interstate shipment of state-inspected beef that meets federal inspection standards. Both of these policies represent victories for consumers and farmers aiming to rebuild local food systems.

Organic Agriculture: The bill provides $78 million in mandatory funds for the Organic Research and Extension Initiative, which enhances the ability of organic producers and processors to grow and market organic food, feed, and fiber. For those transitioning to organic production, $22 million in mandatory funding is provided for the next five years.

The above positive provisions represent alternatives to the current food system without replacing the industrial model, which will take even more advocacy for good food policy in the next farm bill and beyond.

On one of my Farm Bill lobby visits to Washington, DC, I spoke to several Congressional Offices advocating for fair prices on behalf of family farmers. After one of my meetings, a young amiable congressional staffer with a mixed countenance of pity and arrogance, proceeded to tell me, “We aren’t looking to revolutionize the food system, Deb, let alone the Farm Bill.”

Well, I am looking to revolutionize the food system, and I am not alone. Yes, we have an uphill battle. Biotech giant Monsanto Co. spent nearly $1.3 million in just the first quarter of 2008 to lobby on Farm Bill provisions to protect their investments, but there are thousands of grassroots organizations working for public policy that will protect and strengthen the future of our food supply, environment, public health, and communities.

I’m on the frontline of this food revolution as a beginning organic farmer and food justice advocate. Will this Farm Bill help me with the infrastructure I need to process my chickens? Or provide me with the confidence that my sustainably raised food will be price competitive so that all people with empty and deep pockets alike have access to good, fair, and affordable food?

I’ll let you know in five years, but in the meantime, I’ll keep planting those seeds of change and hope you’ll join me in cultivating more palatable food policy.

For more information on Farm Bills:

2 Responsesto “The 2008 Farm Bill: Pollan, Eschmeyer on a bittersweet victory”

  1. farmboy says:

    As a point of reference, I worked in DC for six years (2 at a Capitol Hill sustainable ag non-profit, 4 at USDA in organic program and farmers markets) and have worked in the whole, local, sustainable, organic food scene over 25 years.  I think the appropriate way to frame this story is to acknowledge that the federal government is a feeding trough where sharp elbows prevail, but also to respect Churchill’s statement that democracy is the worst form of government imaginable, until you’ve tried all the rest.  The special interests that own and operate Washington are so throroughly entrenched, in-bred and self-serving that “reforming” their behavior is unrealistic.  The notion that the alternative food movement could use sunlight and a groovy belief system to overcome these interests and re-distribute $300 billion is impractical.  The petro-chemical agricultural establishment is like an alcoholic who won’t admit to having a problem.  They are not going to change their behavior, so don’t waste time trying to shame them or blame them.  Sticking with the 12 Step motif, follow the Serenity Prayer and change the things that you can by adding the programs we need, not eliminating those we dislike. Celebrate ( as Ms. Eschmeyer does) the many, many, many elements of an alternative food system that make the 2008 Farm Bill the most favorable ever to sustainable agricultural interests.  Michael Pollan seems to regard this as having sold out – we let them keep their billions while we settled for our millions – but I don’t see how “we” could ever have taken their billions away.  DC special intersts are the masters of zero sum thinking, and to the extent that they will allow you to have gains, it will never come at their expense.  What is emerging within USDA is a parallel yet full spectrum alternative food model that has substantial conservation, marketing, research, credit, and regulatory functions supportive of local, organic agriculture.  In short, it’s a far more pragmatic approach to erect an alternative model within the existing system than it is to tear down the old system and try to replace it on the fly.  The petro-chemical agricultural model is collapsing under its own weight – it makes people physically and mentally ill, drives farmers at home and around the world off the land, and destroys the life sustaining capacity of the Earth.   But like the suffering alcoholic approaching his or her bottom, it may not be able to see this and redress the situation.  That’s OK – we’re not responsible for them, we can control only our own actions.  By demanding an alternative and sustainable food model – which we are achieving, in DC piece by piece and especially, overwhelmingly on the local level – we won’t get dragged down when our sad friend can rise no more.  I hope this sounds cynical and idealistic simultaneously.  I left DC after six years as a confirmed libertarian – don’t ever ask the government to do something you can do for yourself, and maintain a very high expectation of what you can do for yourself.  Progress towards a sustainable food system will be significantly more efficient at the local level – know your farmer and better yet, grow as much of your own food as you can.  Then take what you can’t eat and give it to your neighbor.  But keeping Churchill in mind, we do have the right to petition government, and government can provide extremely valuable services that we can’t achieve as individuals and small groups.   The sustainable ag community that worked on the 2008 Farm Bill deserves an enormous, enormous amount of credit for getting as many good things in there as they have.   

  2. Dan says:

    Wouldn’t a confirmed libertarian oppose the entire farm bill?