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Does the Farm Bill Affect Your Urban Dinner Plate?

The Farm Bill shapes agricultural choice that affects health and environmental impact

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organic cotton and organic farming production Understanding agriculture is difficult, even for a dedicated researcher who grew up on a farm, has siblings in farming, has been an entrepreneur, and has a lifelong passion for understanding and protecting the natural resources so close to the agricultural system.

That's me. Still confused by how we got where we are...and especially about how BIG the agricultural industry has become. It's factory scale.

So what does that mean for your dinner table?

First, your table is as likely to be in a restaurant as in a home.

Your food selection has changed...with more emphasis on high fructose corn syrup, fried foods, grains and meat.

Flavors and processing have changed, in order to increase shelf life.

Perfect fruits and vegetables are sized and fertilized and coaxed with pesticides to provide perfectly shaped specimens.

Organic methods that focus on nutrient rich soil that protects our water supply and land from erosion have declined...and have been replaced with large scale feedlots and irrigation.

Bigger equipment means more oil use...which means more emissions in the air, and a very different workforce.

Industrialized farms no longer encourage wildlife to be part of the food production ecosystem. That affects pollination, dispersal of natural seeds, native plants, etc.

Prices for food are a smaller portion of your paycheck, but health care costs are larger. There just might be a connection.

The US Farm Bill's Role in Your Dinner

The LA Times has an article by Daniel Imhoff that points out the impact of the Farm Bill on your everyday life. Let's follow the logic...

"Over the last decade, the farm bill has allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to shower tens of billions of dollars in subsidies on the nation's cotton and rice farmers (along with corn, soybean, wheat, sugar and milk producers)." This affects what shows up on your dinner plate...and in your closet!

"These subsidies flow whether growers need them or not. They flow even as they damage the environment and our nutritional well-being. They flow, all the while enabling the biggest farms to consolidate into mega-farms." And mega-farms are corporations who specialize in large scale production techniques that minimize any organic farming or permaculture techniques intended to replenish the natural resources such as water quantity and quality; air quality; wildlife resources; native plants; or nutritional value in the soil.

The Farm Bill started as an amazing tool to help the country recover from some of the worst abuse of the land corporate farming could create -- the Dust Bowl. I lived in Oklahoma for over a decade, and believe me -- the Dust Bowl was not a natural phenomenon. It was brought about by financial speculation by east and west coast investors who plundered the agricultural resources of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska to produce the new "gold" -- wheat. Does that remind you of what's happening with corn today?

The farm bill emerged during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression as a temporary financial safety net for family farmers. It included programs to promote soil conservation and distribute food surpluses to the needy. In the seven decades since that genie was let out of the bottle, however, the farm bill has become a high-stakes game of political horse-trading that has changed how we farm and what we eat. Today, more than a third of the budget goes to an elite group of commodity farms that grow grains and oilseed crops, mainly for feeding livestock and making processed foods (and now, fuels).

When current farm bill negotiations started in 2006, a proverbial food fight erupted. An array of nonprofit organizations, including Oxfam, Bread for the World and the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, pushed for a bill that would emphasize farming livelihoods, more effective environmental protection and better nutrition. Prices on nearly all commodities, except cotton, have been soaring.

Average 2008 farm household income is anticipated to reach $90,000 -- nearly 20% above the national average.

Meantime, commodity farmers were set to receive $13 billion in direct and indirect payments, disaster bailouts, crop insurance and (some worthy) conservation incentives in 2008 alone. Surely, reformers argued, this was the right time to stop throwing money at giant farming operations already making hay in current markets.

A few worthy new programs also were added:

  • funds for organic farming research and to help pay organic certification fees;
  • an expansion of local farmers markets;
  • assistance for beginning farmers;
  • and support for "specialty crop" producers, who for decades have been locked out of the subsidy game. (Specialty crops is farm bill-speak for crops that are actually edible, such as fruits, nuts and vegetables, which many California farmers supply to the nation.)

But, by and large, the farm bill song remains the same: Commodity agribusiness gets the lion's share; reformers get table scraps. Absent a more vocal public outcry, the agribusiness lobby, which spent $80 million in 2007, again holds the winning hand.

What can we citizens expect if the proposed $300-billion farm bill is signed into law?

Federally subsidized feed -- corn, soybeans and cottonseed -- for animal factory farms that spread disease, greenhouse gases and dangerous working conditions wherever they set up shop. (Farm bill "environmental quality" programs will even pay up to $450,000 for the construction of lined "lagoons" to be filled with lethal concentrations of manure.)

The continuation of America's obesity campaign, which ensures the cheapest and most widely available foods are made up of such high-calorie ingredients as high-fructose corn syrup, refined flours, saturated fats and unhealthy meat and dairy products.

And more federally backed exports of California's water -- in the form of cotton and rice, mostly sold overseas.

But here's the one that's really hard to stomach. More than $4 billion in permanent disaster assistance to growers in the Northern Plains.... to guarantee income to farmers plowing up prairies and grasslands -- lands prone to drought and erosion -- to plant corn and wheat.

Many observers fear a second Dust Bowl.

Daniel Imhoff is the author of "Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill." Publisher: Watershed Media, Healdsburg,CA

SOURCE: Read the rest of the Farm Bill story at LATIMES.COM

Edited by Carolyn Allen
| agriculture | farming | health | food |


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