Has the Farm Bill Made Us Fat?

If it's called a Farm Bill, why should the average citizen care? I'm talking about the omnibus legislation currently under discussion in the House Agriculture committee.

I posed this question to Daniel Imhoff, a California-based publisher and public speaker on environmental and food issues. The author of "Food Fight: The Citizens Guide to a Food and Farm Bill," which was published this spring, Imhoff touched on several issues including the environment, agribusiness and our health as a nation. He went so far as to call the Farm Bill the "fat bill."

I couldn't help but think about this notion as I caught an episode of "Shaq's Big Challenge," the latest reality show in which basketball superstar Shaquille O'Neal rides herd on six Miami area middle schoolers to shed some major, life-threatening weight. Got me thinking when the last time these kids, who live in the citrus state, last had an orange for an after-school snack...

Here are some excerpts of my conversation with Imhoff:

Why should non-farming Americans care about the Farm Bill?
First of all, the big misnomer is that this a farm bill concerning farms and farmers only. It's a bill that affects everybody. It's their tax money [$274 billion was authorized in 2002], it's their food system. So it should really be called a Food and Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill was brought into being to compensate for things that the market in the Great Depression didn't compensate for. It was looked at as a safety net, a temporary lift for farmers, a way to save the soil that was literally blowing away. But the problem is that the market has changed but the same model from the 1930s has persisted.

The Farm Bill is our chance to get things right, to get on a better track, to compensate for the things that the market doesn't easily compensate for.

Such as?
Conservation. The way things are now is that farmers are trying to outproduce each other in order to stay ahead (with the emphasis on subsidies)- and this is having real consequences to our land and soil.

The Farm Bill in the 1960s and 70s took a different turn, and in order to keep farmers subsidized, it became a commodity crop and food stamp bill.

Which means?
The bulk of farm subsidies are going to corn, cotton, wheat, soybeans and rice crops. And many of these crops are used mostly for animal feed and for processing ingredients to support the processed food industry, like high-fructose corn syrup and additives.

It has become a "fat bill."

What do you mean?
The medical costs of obesity ($117 billion annually in 2002 according to statistics compiled by the National Institutes of Health Weight Control Information Network ) are directly linked to our diet and huge amount of calories that we're getting that is hugely subsidized by the Farm Bill.

We've got the USDA nutritional guidelines and pyramid on one hand, (which recommends about 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day) but the Farm Bill doesn't support that. (Fruit and vegetable growers do not receive subsidies.)

Imhoff's argument about the link between farm policy and our nation's health was also set forth this week on "On Point," a pubic radio show in Boston. Guest Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma." Pollan asked, "Why aren't we doing more to help producers to make more healthy food?" Later in the conversation, he argued that "supporting farmers is not a bad idea. Let's re-examine how we support them, beyond growing corn, soybeans and wheat."

Discussion continues today in the House Agriculture committee. It remains unclear when the Bill will be marked up in the Senate Agriculture committee, chaired by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and August recess is just around the corner.

For more background on various pieces of this multi-layered debate:

For regular congressional updates on The Farm Bill from policy wonk Keith Good on his Web site, Farm Policy

American Farmland Trust explainer, with links to 12 bills (5 House, 6 Senate) calling for various degrees of Farm Bill reform.

USDA America's Farm Bill page, which includes links to bills up for consideration and press releases from Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns

For those who like to play with numbers, the Environmental Working Group has compiled a farm subsidy database, with analysis

By Kim ODonnel |  July 19, 2007; 1:16 PM ET Food Politics , Q&A
Previous: So What's This Farm Bill? | Next: Never Enough Zucchini Recipes


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Sounds good at first glance, but lets look at the language he doesn't use: "You know those pork chops you had for dinner last night? You know, the ones you purchased for $4.00 a lb? Well, I've decided that they're too cheap. I think we need a farm bill that pushes up the cost of animal feed and makes it hard for you to purchase meat on a regular basis. I'm doing this for your own good, since you're too stupid to eat the right foods."

Posted by: J. Brenner | July 19, 2007 5:30 PM

Just go vegetarian. That will take care of it.


Posted by: Falls Church | July 19, 2007 5:35 PM

Why is there hardly any blogging about cooking on this blog anymore? I'm tired of coming here and having to plow through travelogues and politics and not finding recipes.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2007 5:42 PM

The farm bill is of vital importance to anyone who eats in the US. If you look at the obesity rates in the US vs those in Europe and then compare what we eat with what they eat, the major difference is one single ingredient - High Fructose Corn Syrup. Because of the farm bill and the subsidies, as well as a sugar tariff, sugar is much more expensive here than in Europe and HFCS is widely available, and used in almost everything. In Europe even sodas don't have HFCS. Here, even some baby formulas do! It's insane and unhealthy. Then, when you look at the environmental effect of corn farming vs pretty much any other vegetable, corn is a nitrogen producer and really affects the environment in a severely negative way. If the farm bill only serves to fix the corn, and HFCS, problem, it will be a great thing for the US. everyone talks about transfats - HFCS is going to kill a lot more of us (through diabetes, obeisty and related issues) a lot quicker than transfats ever will. I wish the food community would wake up to the danger in our midst!

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2007 11:00 PM

Here's Thursday's story in the Post about the first day of the House Ag Committee Farm Bill discussions. There is talk about 1. 8 billion for fruit and vegetable growers. Stay tuned.


Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | July 20, 2007 8:37 AM

Thanks for sharing both your conversation with Daniel Imhoff and these links. These issues are so important - and so often ignored. Keep up the good work!

Posted by: Anonymous | July 20, 2007 10:50 AM

Thanks for posting such important information here, Kim. Too bad so many Repubs have to come here and post their illogical ramblings ("where is the eat too much section???") but you are doing what you can and sensible people thank you.

Posted by: VeggieMan | July 25, 2007 2:52 PM

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