By Ian Rosoff
This week is an important week for food in the United States.
On Monday Votifi launched its Food section.
Later this week Congress will probably vote on the Farm Bill, which passed the Senate on July 7.
We thought since we told you how important food is for politics, we should dig a little deeper into this $½ trillion behemoth Bill. Let’s be clear. The Farm Bill isn’t sexy. Agriculture doesn’t get the same play that health care, wars, and jobs do. But it has a major impact on all of those issues.
The Farm Bill in an enormous omnibus-spending bill that Congress takes on about twice a decade. Its influence is as far reaching as any piece of legislation.
Bloomberg’s Businessweek had some great graphics about the Farm Bill and how it impacts virtually every minute of your waking and sentient life.
The 1,000-page tome takes on boring topics like intricate insurance rules, subsidies, disaster assistance, regulating markets, and providing safety standards. But the largest chunk of the Farm Bill is food stamps, and sadly a large chunk of our energy spending is done through the Farm Bill.
For more fun digging through the Farm Bill, check out Johns Hopkins University’s Farm Bill Budget Visualizer (warning: it’s a bit clunky)
The Farm Bill is an old tradition, dating back to the Great Depression. It’s a safety net for America’s farmers and for the American consumer, helping farmers to survive when prices are low and families to cope when prices are high.
Pundits on both the Right and Left will put the Farm Bill through the ringer (such as this infographic from the Environmental Working Group). You will hear that we are paying for farmers not to farm, overpaying for corn and useless ethanol, spending too much money on Food stamps, not spending enough money on Food Stamps, giving foreign countries to much aid and a slew of other criticisms.
Part of the problem is that past versions of the Bill were perhaps overly generous with subsidies, and getting rid of subsidies is one of the hardest tasks in Washington, and that goes for Democrats and Republicans. According to Bloomberg the Senate is saving $24 billion by offering crop insurance instead of subsidies, but while it’s easy to attack agriculture spending, most people are completely unaware of how the business of food works.
The Farm Bill as it currently exists does cut spending in significant ways. I agree that the government should look to cut unnecessary spending no matter the economic climate, and right now it’s especially important. Yet in understanding the impact of this bill I worry that people don’t understand how crucial agriculture and the Farm Bill are to navigating through the complex times we live in.
It is an unfortunate reality that food is killing this country, but let’s forgot heart disease, clogged arteries, diabetes, and obesity for just a minute. About 15% of the U.S. population is employed because of food, or the “farm gate,” that includes producing, processing, and selling and trading American food. But let’s forgot that for a minute.
Last year the world population hit seven billion and currently the U.S. is the only country that is able to meet the world’s food demand for the foreseeable future. The U.S. exports about $6 million in agricultural products every hour, and more than $100 billion a year.
Then there is the land. Agricultural land is the source of billions of dollars in economic activity and millions of jobs, but it’s being destroyed by big agri-business. In the name of higher profits the land is cultivated without cover crops or proper time to let the soil replenish itself with nutrients. Pesticides destroy the soil and the wildlife (agricultural land provides habitat for 75% of the nation’s wildlife). That’s OK because there is always more land, until there isn’t. The mass production of beef, pork, and chicken further contribute to the destruction of the environment. Animal waste is disposed of in unthinkable ways and industrial grazing practices leave grassland devastated.
The worst part is that the worst part hasn’t even begun yet. Look at a map right now and the temperatures across the country; it’s 100 degrees across the board. Normally the U.S. is in the perfect growing sweet spot for all things agriculture. Whether or not you believe in climate change, the temperatures we’ve seen recently and the already quantifiable rise in average temperature is threatening to end that. Drought is on the rise and whole crops were wiped out by an early spring heat wave then freeze in the north. Michigan lost its entire apple crop this year because of weather damage. The cherry crop was also devastated. There goes millions in lost revenue right there. And Michigan isn’t an isolated incident.
Don’t think organic farming is going to save us either. Organic farming is great for Whole Food’s bottom line, but it isn’t healthier, and often isn’t better for the environment. Does anyone really know what organic even means? It simply tells us that only a certain level of pesticides and antibiotics were used. The USDA mandates a few other rules for organic food products but organics have serious drawbacks as well. They take up more land, yields are smaller, and as the market is exploding corporations are getting involved. Kraft, Altria, and General Mills are three of the country’s largest organic producers. Guess what: sustainability isn’t a core part of their business model.
We need more solutions, more money, more pages, and a great Farm Bill. It isn’t sexy, but pay attention to this bill. Agriculture policy is something every American should become conversant in. An affordable, safe, healthy, profitable, sustainable agriculture industry for a nation of 300 million and a world of 7 billion is a monumental task and everyone needs to get involved in giving this issue more attention.