By MICHAEL POLLAN
FOR Americans who have been looking to Congress to reform the food system, these past few weeks have been, well, the best of times and the worst of times. A new politics has sprouted up around the farm bill, traditionally a parochial piece of legislation thrashed out in private between the various agricultural interests (wheat growers versus corn growers; meatpackers versus ranchers) without a whole lot of input or attention from mere eaters.
Not this year. The eaters have spoken, much to the consternation of farm-state legislators who have fought hard — and at least so far with success — to preserve the status quo.
Americans have begun to ask why the farm bill is subsidizing high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils at a time when rates of diabetes and obesity among children are soaring, or why the farm bill is underwriting factory farming (with subsidized grain) when feedlot wastes are polluting the countryside and, all too often, the meat supply. For the first time, the public health community has raised its voice in support of overturning farm policies that subsidize precisely the wrong kind of calories (added fat and added sugar), helping to make Twinkies cheaper than carrots and Coca-Cola competitive with water. Also for the first time, the international development community has weighed in on the debate, arguing that subsidized American exports are hobbling cotton farmers in Nigeria and corn farmers in Mexico.
On Capitol Hill, hearings on the farm bill have been packed, and newspapers like The San Francisco Chronicle are covering the legislation as closely as The Des Moines Register, bringing an unprecedented level of attention to what has long been one of the most obscure and least sexy pieces of legislation in Congress. Sensing the winds of reform at his back, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told a reporter in July: “This is not just a farm bill. It’s a food bill, and Americans who eat want a stake in it.”
Right now, that stake is looking more like a toothpick. Americans who eat have little to celebrate in the bill that Mr. Harkin is expected to bring to the floor this week. Like the House bill passed in July, the Senate product is very much a farm bill in the traditional let-them-eat-high-fructose-corn-syrup mold.
For starters, the Old Guard on both agriculture committees has managed to preserve the entire hoary contraption of direct payments, countercyclical payments and loan deficiency payments that subsidize the five big commodity crops — corn, wheat, rice, soybeans and cotton — to the tune of $42 billion over five years.
The Old Guard has also managed to add a $5 billion “permanent disaster” program (excuse me, but isn’t a permanent disaster a contradiction in terms?) to help farmers in the High Plains struggling to grow crops in a drought-prone region that, as the chronic need for disaster aid suggests, might not be the best place to grow crops...
We would not need all these nutrition programs if the commodity title didn’t do such a good job making junk food and fast food so ubiquitous and cheap. Food stamps are crucial, surely, but they will be spent on processed rather than real food as long as the commodity title makes calories of fat and sugar the best deal in the supermarket. We would not need all these conservation programs if the commodity title, by paying farmers by the bushel, didn’t encourage them to maximize production with agrochemicals and plant their farms with just one crop fence row to fence row.
And the government would not need to pay feedlots to clean up the water or upgrade their manure pits if subsidized grain didn’t make rearing animals on feedlots more economical than keeping them on farms. Why does the farm bill pay feedlots to install waste treatment systems rather than simply pay ranchers to keep their animals on grass, where the soil would be only too happy to treat their waste at no cost?
However many worthwhile programs get tacked onto the farm bill to buy off its critics, they won’t bring meaningful reform to the American food system until the subsidies are addressed — until the underlying rules of the food game are rewritten...