So What's This Farm Bill?

While the nation's attention turns to the Senate all nighter over troops in Iraq, there's another huge omnibus bill up for discussion this week that's worth a collective looksee: the 2007 Farm Bill. This piece of 5-7 year legislation, worth about $274 billion dollars in 2002 (when it was last passed) is about our food system. It's about what we eat, what grows on our land, how much food costs, and as some critics contend, how fat we've become. The bill is up for markup discussion in the House Agriculture Committee, chaired by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), through tomorrow.

In response to the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Wallace created the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, which was originally created to help ailing farmers and strengthen rural communities. Over the years, in addition to farm subsidies, it's come to include food stamp, school lunch and low-income nutrition programs as well as land conservation assistance. Since the 1970s, the focus of funding has swayed in the direction of commodity crops, namely corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and sugar.

According to data compiled by Washington public interest and advocacy organization Environmental Working Group, 66 percent of crop subsidy benefits went to just 10 percent of all farmers in the years 2003-2005. And those farmers getting the biggest piece of the pie -- the USDA's top 20 beneficiaries --- all grow the aforementioned commodities.

So if you grow fruits and vegetables or raise livestock, you get zilch.

In fact, Jake Caldwell, of the Center for American Progress, stated this week on "On Point," a Boston-based public radio program, that "57 percent of all farmers receive no payments at all."

So you might ask, so what? What's the big deal and why do I care which farmers get the big bucks and which don't? I'm not a farmer.

The situation is, to say the least, complicated and highly politicized. But there is more evidence (and a resulting groundswell) connecting Farm Bill policies to the health of our nation. There are many who contend that because of the legacy of disproportionate funding to commodity crops that we have become fat. As in obese.

Tomorrow, I'll share a Q&A with Dan Imhoff, author of "Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill." (See how he calls it a Food and Farm Bill?)

Stay tuned, and in the meantime, chime in.

By Kim ODonnel |  July 18, 2007; 12:33 PM ET Food Politics
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Comments

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I'm pretty familiar with the farm bill/USDA programs and I believe I've missed the program that forces people to eat more than they should and get fat. Could you point that out to me? Thanks!

Posted by: Gray | July 18, 2007 2:17 PM

The strategy to use the "crisis" of obesity to drive a review of this bill is specious. The Farm Bill is bad public policy in so many ways, it is hard to list in a short comment. The power of the constituencies who support it is considerable, so only incremental change is even possible. Suffice it to say that the economic impacts of the bill - like so many in our country that affect the economic weal - reach far beyond our own borders to people who struggle in undeveloped countries. Just one of the commodities subsidized by the farm bill - King Cotton - which has such a fascinating history in our country - is worth inquiry by your readers. It could be argued that the cotton industry - which many might say oppressed poor blacks in the U.S. years ago, continues to oppress poor blacks in Africa today through this bill. The irony is noteworthy - as are our partners in crime on this issue (including China and France).

Posted by: Krazy P | July 18, 2007 2:43 PM

Gray,

I would assume you get obese because you are middle class/lower class and struggling to pay the bills and put food on your plate. When the cheap food is bread and pasta(and other items) and not vegetables and fruit then you are not eating healthily and therefore prone to gain weight.

It doesn't necessarily have to do with eating more than you should but eating what you shouldn't because you can't always afford what you should.

My husband and I have commented on numerous occasions that it is certainly cheaper to eat unhealthy.

Posted by: Billie | July 18, 2007 2:43 PM

Read the Omnivores Dilemma - by turning our food system into a corn processing system the Farm Bill has encouraged the use of corn in all phases of our diet, to the detriment of our personal health, and the environment. For example on the Eastern Shore of Maryland are large chicken and hog production operations feeding the animals diets made up of corn and not to mention waste materials that are not natural to these animals. To increase gain and shorten time to market the animals are genetically engineered as well as feed anti-biotics. The goal is cheap food, not taste or health.

The results are less than healthy foods, huge amounts of manures that pollutes the Bay and increased resistance to anti-biotics.

These high carb & sugar products increases the eaters weight. The Farm Bill encourages a monoculture of corn which in the eyes of natures is very dangerous. Next conventional corn agriculture requires a very high dependency on oil to provide the fuel to spread the herbicides (oil based) and pesticides (oil based) on the land. By products of these chemicals are a loss of honey bees and song birds. Think Silent Spring.

Posted by: Firda Barker | July 18, 2007 2:48 PM

It's just a matter of how much of our tax dollars we want going to pay millionaire farmers to make the ingredients for cheaper Twinkies.

Posted by: csdiego | July 18, 2007 2:55 PM

While generally I am very progressive, politically, I think the only decent farm bill is one that ends all agricultural subsidies, forever. Recognizing the impact this would have on small- and mid-sized farms, the bill should impose a cap of, say, $40,000 in aggregate federal money per year, to be scaled back by $10,000 per year so that after four years, no more farm subsidies of any kind. Maybe I would make an allowance for slightly subsidized insurance against major weather disasters, but that's it. No more price supports, no more money for not farming, nothing. I'm tired of giving tax dollars to agribusiness.

Posted by: Rocket88 | July 18, 2007 4:27 PM

We don't need to end subsidies, just change what we subsidize. Stop subsidizing the over production of corn that is then made into high fructose corn syrup. If I'm not mistaken, corn syrup became a popular sugar sub beginning in the 70s because of these subsidies. We're subsidizing Coca-Cola and candy bars! It's a common complaint that it's more expensive to feed a family fresh healthy produce than processed goods. If we shift the subsidies, we can make fresh fruits and vegetables cheap!

Posted by: Silver Spring | July 18, 2007 4:39 PM

It is really quite sad how many calories you can get per dollar at the grocery store buying junk food. It is obviously time to subsidize foods that make Americans healthier, so there will be fewer medical costs in the long-run.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 18, 2007 4:54 PM

Shoot! I came back here hoping someone would have pointed me in the direction of the section that forced people to eat too much. I guess I'll just have to hope for better luck tomorrow!

Posted by: Gray | July 18, 2007 5:22 PM

Gray, you may do better by finding an article that addresses people being forced to eat too much. This article didn't say that.

Posted by: Dona Dunsmore | July 18, 2007 6:32 PM

What I meant to post here is thanks for the links and the discussion.

Posted by: Dona Dunsmore | July 18, 2007 6:35 PM

What had better not be Earmarked is any sort of Agricultural Worker's Amnesty BS!

Last I was hearing, some Looney Leftist Senators and President Wannabees were trying to slip 3-4 Million illegal invaders into our Country-And then all their extended Familias, and then theirs....

Billary, Obasama, Lurch, Teddy, Peloser, Reid and a few others-Watch it!

You have a viscious RAT watching YOU!

Posted by: RAT-The | July 18, 2007 8:35 PM

I hope this blog doesn't get taken over by people with axes to grind on other issues (see above), because the Farm Bill warrants a full examination and discussion by itself. The Farm Bill does fork over money to livestock, however, by creating incentives for feedlot operations run on corn/grains.

Furthermore, there is the existing practice of allowing ranchers who graze their cattle on public lands to an 80% subsidy. Somewhat Farm Bill related because most of these livestock are "finished" on feedlots.

Posted by: Jackson | July 18, 2007 8:54 PM

Hi Dona! I'll help you out by pointing to the part of the blog I'm referring to.

"The situation is, to say the least, complicated and highly politicized. But there is more evidence (and a resulting groundswell) connecting Farm Bill policies to the health of our nation. There are many who contend that because of the legacy of disproportionate funding to commodity crops that we have become fat. As in obese."

You're right, it doesn't say the words "eat too much." Maybe I should have said "please direct me to the section that forces people to consume more calories than they should and move less than they should." (In case this is new to you, this is what generally makes people obese.)

Hope this helps!

Posted by: Gray | July 18, 2007 11:04 PM

Well Gray is being smug, but I will attempt to answer. If one is poor and can only afford subsidized starches (corn, wheat, etc . . . ), then their bodies may force them to overeat. Why? Because even though starch provides a lot of calories it does not provide many essential nutrients. The body is starving because it lacks the nutrients, causing the person to still feel hungry even though their caloric needs have been met. I have several friends that spent a long amount of time in developing countries where a starch (white rice) was the main food. They all said that they felt hungry all the time despite gaining weight.

Posted by: Florida | July 18, 2007 11:41 PM

Florida, show me a developing country whose main meals consist of starch that has a grossly overweight population. If rice is so bad, how come there aren't a billion fat Chinese? Quit blaming starch. You fat people are always looking for an excuse.

Posted by: Fred | July 19, 2007 2:05 PM

"Florida, show me a developing country whose main meals consist of starch that has a grossly overweight population. If rice is so bad, how come there aren't a billion fat Chinese?"

Show me a developing country that has the plethora of cheap, stachy food that we have. Of course you won't get fat when you eat just rice, and especially when its limited by economic conditions in developing countries. Also, think how much people move when they have to do manual labor to survive (as is often the case in developing countries). Here, we have an overabundence of sedentary jobs and an overabundance of cheap, starchy foods.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2007 4:52 PM

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