“Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”
–William Jennings Bryan, 1896
Presidential candidate Bryan was biased — he hailed from Nebraska and the nation’s breadbasket — but he had a point. Even today, when fewer than 2 percent of Americans live on farms, agriculture might fairly be called our economy’s linchpin; we all have to eat. To its everlasting credit, our industrial farm system has created something our ancestors craved: a cheap, guaranteed food supply. But by any other quality measure, 21st century agriculture flunks. With the current federal farm bill expiring Sept. 30, Congress is poised, surprise surprise, to screw up its rewrite.
To understand what lawmakers should do, you first must know all the bad the current policy does. It squanders taxpayers’ money, subsidizing the production primarily of five commodities (soybeans, cotton, corn, wheat and rice) grown largely by corporate and well-off farmers. Those five include essential ingredients in the junk foods making us fat. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates we’d avoid up to 127,000 heart disease deaths annually if Americans ate the USDA’s recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables — and those juicy strawberries, tangy blueberries, and succulent tomatoes you’ve savored this summer generally aren’t subsidized.
Current ag policy also poisons the environment. (Two examples: “The world’s largest ocean dead zone — an area the size of New Jersey devoid of aquatic life” — is a Gulf of Mexico stretch killed by agricultural runoff, a Yale magazine reports. And industrial livestock farming vomits greenhouse gases.) Between pesticides and the antibiotics used on livestock so promiscuously that diseases are becoming resistant to them, we may be poisoning ourselves. Congressional climate change deniers, meanwhile, are blocking action to address a potential “Coming Food Crisis” due to broiling temperatures. Finally, factory-farmed animals endure what can fairly be called torture.
Against this backdrop, Congress is pondering “reform” ideas that could fertilize all of Texas. House Republicans and Senate Democrats propose varying cuts to SNAP (food stamps). SNAP comprises the bulk of farm bill spending but helps the needy and is less fraud-riddled than farm supports. Another legislative legerdemain would delete direct crop subsidies, then funnel much of the savings to the same undeserving growers by boosting subsidies for their premiums under the government-supported crop insurance program.
Given the farm lobby’s clout, any good reform doubtless will be gradual. (Bill Clinton signed a phase-out of farm subsidies in 1996, only to sit back as a craven Congress did an end-run.) Economies of scale have been promoting Big Agriculture over idyllic family farms since the Gilded Age. Reform, it should be noted, doesn’t mean kamikaze attempt to produce everything locally, but rather shifting support to regionally produced food that’s healthier, environmentally benign, humane, and doesn’t pad rich people’s wallets.
A good farm bill would begin with a process farmers know well: pruning. We’d phase out direct subsidies, and trim insurance subsidies to wealthy farms and insurance companies (yes, you’re bankrolling them, too). The tens of billions saved would not only dwarf the proposed SNAP cuts, according to New York Times food guru Mark Bittman; they would be more than enough money for better uses, starting with:
Expanding crop insurance to fruit and vegetable farmers, many of whom can’t get it now. You might ask why healthy food growers need taxpayer help, when farmers markets selling unsubsidized, uninsured, locally grown produce have mushroomed. But Jeffrey O’Hara, agricultural economist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says these healthy food sales remain modest overall, at a time when Americans should be doubling our fruit and vegetable consumption to meet healthy eating guidelines. Insurance also would shield healthy food farms from unpreventable weather catastrophes, he says, and anyway, “crop insurance can be used for collateral for an operating loan by lenders” to farmers.
More research on increasing fruit and vegetable production. A report by O’Hara suggests investing in plant-breeding studies to increase fruit and vegetable yields and make them more weather-proof. Farmers also will need data on protecting agriculture from global warming.
A corollary to healthy food production is money for teaching healthy eating. One study found farm-to-school programs boosted fruit-and-vegetable consumption (as our obesity rates demonstrate, many people are nutrition-ignorant and find it easier to cook a processed TV dinner than a healthy meal). Given kids’ aversion to healthy eating in school, money for such promotions, and cutting subsidies that keep junk food ingredients artificially cheap, makes sense. So does money to help conventional farmers switch to pesticide-free organic farming.
Funding more farmers markets and other “food hubs.” O’Hara’s report notes that 30 million Americans in poor neighborhoods live more than a mile from a supermarket. Boosting existing USDA grants and loans to expand farmers markets and train young people in healthy farming is one step; clearing administrative barriers to using SNAP and other federal food benefits at markets is another.
Don’t torpedo state moves toward more humane animal husbandry. One industry shill groused about “armchair” reformers (that would include me, having never lived or worked on a farm). Funny thing about armchairs, though: You can prop a calculator on those arms and do a little math. The mathematics of spending billions to poison, fatten, and dehumanize ourselves harvests many acres of cynicism about government.