Get Up, Stand Up!

The 2007 farm bill will shape our food future

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In October I had the opportunity to attend Terra Madre, the Slow Food conference in Turin, Italy. Slow Food is a nonprofit, member-supported organization that was founded in 1989 as way to counteract the fast food and fast life phenomenon sweeping the world. This phenomenon is causing the disappearance of local food traditions and a dwindling interest in the food we eat, including where it comes from, how it tastes, and how our food choices affect the rest of the world. (I’ll talk more about Slow Food and Terra Madre in my next column.)

I was sitting at the opening ceremony, listening to the president of Italy talk about the importance of region and the value local producers who use sustainable methods bring to his country and the world. I couldn’t help but wonder whether our president would attend or express similar sentiments if this event were held in our country. I would say most likely not, looking at agricultural policy currently in place and the combined grade of a D+ for Congress and C– for the USDA on sustainable ag issues given by the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in October 2006. (You can see it for yourself at www.msawg.org/farmbill/Report20Card.pdf )

Then, on my flight home, I read my copy of The Nation (September 11, 2006), an edition that was primarily about food. One section, entitled “One Thing to Do About Food: A Forum,” included excellent essays from such noted writers as Eric Schlosser, Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry, Troy Duster, Elizabeth Ransom, Winona LaDuke, Peter Singer, Dr. Vandana Shiva, Carlo Petrini, Eliot Coleman, and Jim Hightower. These contributors got me thinking about how we could get more involved in our own food policies. Now, I know many of us vote with our dollars by purchasing organic food, supporting local farmers, and participating in global and domestic fair trade programs, which all pay tremendous dividends. But what if we could actually change our country’s policies surrounding food?

All of the essays stirred many thoughts and emotions, but it was Michael Pollan’s essay about the farm bill that got my democratic juices flowing. What is the farm bill? As Pollan puts it, “Every five years or so (farm bills were passed every four years from 1973 to 1985, since then they have been written as five-, six-, or seven-year bills), the President of the United States signs an obscure piece of legislation that determines what happens on a couple of hundred million acres of private land in America, what sort of food Americans eat (and how much it costs) and, as a result, the health of our population.”

Interesting, I thought, but what really happens to produce this legislation? The following description from the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture gives us a better idea:

The various provisions in a Farm Bill cover everything from commodity subsidies, food assistance programs, land conservation, farm credit and rural development rules and policies, agricultural trade, research, and many other farm and food laws. And even though all of these could be covered by separate laws, Congress often finds it advantageous to combine many of these laws into a single, large-scale reauthorization at the same time they renew the farm commodity programs. “This omnibus approach has the potential advantage of affording an opportunity to take a more comprehensive look at food, agriculture, and rural policy, and also increases prospects for broader-based coalitions of support.”

That’s a mouthful, but you get the idea. The previous farm bill, known as the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, is going to expire in 2007—which is where we have the opportunity to institute some historic change.

In his essay, Michael Pollan suggests that since this bill helps to decide what our kids eat for lunch in school every day, what crops will be supported as commodities, etc., perhaps we should call this the 2007 Food Bill. I think it certainly would get a lot more people’s attention. And, of course, raise a lot more questions.

If you and your co-op members were writing this farm bill, would you subsidize soybeans? Continue to allow Monsanto to run roughshod over farmers’ rights? Continue school lunch programs that offer fat over healthy and local? Or would you start looking at a platform with more of a sustainable ag focus like what the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition came up with?

Sustainable Agriculture Coalition platform:

Enact a comprehensive, cross-cutting new initiative to provide beginning farmers and ranchers with tools they need to successfully enter farming or ranching.

Transform the Conservation Security Program to support comprehensive conservation with high levels of natural resource protection on all types of farms and ranches nationwide.

Expand the scope and funding of the Value-Added Producers Grant program, including the addition of a new grant component to develop value chains that increase the profitability of mid-sized farms, using clear and transparent social, environmental, fair labor, and fair trade standards.

Invest in a new Farm, Food, and Rural Transitions Competitive Grants program to provide mandatory farm bill funding for outcome-based research, education, and extension services on emerging challenges.

Create a Rural Entrepreneurs and Micro-Enterprise Program to provide grants to qualified organizations to assist them in developing training, services, and credit for rural micro-enterprises.

Increase funding for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program and create a new organic transition support program to increase the conversions that will be necessary to meet burgeoning consumer demand for organic food.

Support a farm bill competition title that helps restore fairness and efficiency to the market by strengthening the Packers and Stockyards Act and the Agricultural Fair Practices Act and establishment of a new USDA Office of Special Counsel for Competition Matters.

Determine the ecological and economic feasibility of producing energy from a new array of feedstock crops through a new Sustainable Agricultural Energy Innovation Grants Program.

Call for more funding of WIC programs so low-income families could have more access to fresh produce.

Can you imagine if PCC Natural Markets started a call-in campaign or the Twin Cities co-ops put together a postcard campaign to our legislators to demand such changes in the 2007 farm/food bill? Or if just half of the members of 300 food co-ops wrote a letter to their representatives, how powerful that would be? Remember what 285,000 consumer responses did for the organic rule a few years ago? It worked.

Earlier this year, Congress was working to cut nearly $100 million from 2006 spending levels for agriculture programs. It was calls directly from constituents to the U.S. House of Representatives telling them how the constituents felt that got an amendment to its 2007 agriculture appropriations bill passed by a resounding voice vote. The amendment increased funds for the USDA Organic Transitions research program from $1.8 million to $5 million for the next fiscal year.

There is a new Congress, a new Senate, and the time is right for change. So where do we begin?

  • We need to familiarize ourselves with the farm bill itself.
  • Find out your representative’s position on what’s covered in the farm bill and find out the key legislators involved in agricultural policy decisions.
  • Develop a clear message to bring to your members, and develop easy ways for them to act on it (newsletter articles, postcards, lists of legislators phone numbers and email addresses, easy form letters to use).
  • Then spend the next eight months barraging Congress with calls and letters until they create policy that works for everyone and not just the multi-national corporations who think they are in control of our food.

I can’t wait to see what we accomplish. Wouldn’t that be a harvest worth celebrating next fall?

Visit the Environmental Commons website for more on local food

A series of fact sheets are available through Environmental Commons. They can be downloaded and are available in full-color hard copy as well. www.environmentalcommons.org/LocalFood

Shaping Our Local Food Systems outlines the importance of local jurisdiction over many aspects of food and agriculture and illustrates why food should be controlled locally.

Local Food Systems: Challenges and Threats describes the forces that shape food systems in the interests of a few large corporations at the expense of the public interest.

Local Food Systems: Getting Involved charts the course for building food systems that truly support local communities.

The Place of Food in Our Lives reflects on the consequences of understanding our food primarily as a commodity versus as an integral part of family and community life.

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Mark Mulcahy is an organic produce educator, recently hired at New Leaf Community Market in Santa Cruz, California ([email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #128 January - February - 2007