Farm Bill? What does it matter to me?

This Friday, April 27, the Global Environmental Politics program at American University will be hosting a day-long symposium at the School of International Service to discuss the proposed US Farm Bill for 2012. Though the Farm Bill may not seem very relevant to our lives, it plays a crucial role in determining what we eat, how much it costs, how accessible it is, how it is produced, etc. It influences the quality of school food, our urban and rural economy, soils, air, and waterways, both domestically and internationally. For an awesome graphic explaining the twin problems of global hunger and food waste, check out this graphic. Thus, anyone who cares about food, health, children’s health, animal welfare, the ecosystem, jobs, social justice, should be aware of the Farm Bill and its enormous implications for our food and health system both in the United States and abroad.

One reason why a fair Farm Bill is so important is that historically and currently, the majority of the Farm Bill subsidies goes towards one of five commodity crops: corn, cotton, wheat, rice, and soybeans. In addition, the overwhelming majority of these subsidies goes toward large corporate owned farms, making it difficult for family farms to compete and devastating rural economies. It is because of these subsidies that corn and soybean prices have been so artificially cheap, leading to an excess of processed products with high fructose corn syrup and cows and chickens raised in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) with a diet of corn, instead of grass-diet that the animals are adapted to. Because of these subsidies, these agribusinesses have been able to sell their crops abroad at a very low price, in a practice known as dumping, and devastating those agricultural economies as well.

See the graphic below for how the Farm Bill budget is divided.

As a result, products such as a Big Mac, chicken nuggets, and soda may seem cheap, but in reality, the listed price hides the true cost of production: the air and water pollution from the manure lagoons in CAFOs, the poor working conditions of the farm workers picking the tomatoes, the amount of pesticides and fertilizers used to grow the corn to feed the cows, the health impacts of having only fast food available in neighborhoods. While the Farm Bill provides extensive subsidies to the five commodity crops and has deregulated the commodity market, very little financial assistance is offered to farmers growing fruits and vegetables, making healthy food seem expensive and inaccessible in comparison.

Thus, advocating for a Farm Bill that will support small farms that practice organic agriculture and grow a diverse set of crops instead of just one is essential. Back in November, I participated in a Lobby Day organized by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to lobby our representatives to support the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act sponsored by Representative Chellie Pingree. This bill is one example of legislation that if passed, could dramatically improve the state of our economy, health, and environment by focusing on providing assistance to small farmers, farmers markets, Farm to School programs, and other local and healthy food initiatives. As someone who works at an elementary school, I am particularly concerned about the quality of the school food that students eat (or don’t eat) everyday as it has direct impacts on their well-being as well as their academic performance. It is exciting to see that more and more people are coming to this realization and working to implement systematic changes to address these intertwined problems. For example, when I attended the Senate Committee hearing on Healthy Food Initiatives, Local Production, and Nutrition on March 7, I was pleasantly surprised by how much Senator Stabenow and the other witnesses were advocating for local and healthy food.

Currently, the Senate Committee is supposed to hold a meeting to markup and amend the 2012 Farm Bill this Thursday, April 26 at 10:30am in 328A Russell Senate Office Building. The House Committee will also be hosting a hearing on Thursday, April 26, but at 9:30am (focused on conservation issues) and at 2pm (focused on dairy programs) in 1300 Longsworth House Office Building. Since each Farm Bill is usually authorized only once every five to seven years, if you are in Washington DC, it is a good opportunity to check out the hearings and hear people discuss the possibilities and implications of this important piece of legislation. The Senate Farm Bill Markup meeting will also be streamed live here if you cannot make it in person.

The food system in the United States is broken and a fair Farm Bill could help to address many of these current problems of food insecurity, access, affordability, and safety. So come join us this Friday at American University for a conversation about what this fair Farm Bill could look like and how it could be implemented. Since the Farm Bill is such a complicated piece of legislation, we will be hosting a Farm Bill 101: Teach-in with Freshly Baked Pies, the day before on Thursday, April 26 at 7pm in SIS 300, to provide a primer about what the Farm Bill entails and its wide-ranging impacts. The AU Pie Club has generously agreed to bake the pies so we will have spinach quiches and rhubarb pies, with the spinach and rhubarb purchased from Agora Farms at AU’s Farmers Market!

On Friday, April 27, we will be featuring EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Representative Chellie Pingree, co-sponsor of Local Farm, Food, and Jobs Act, and Under Secretary of Agriculture Michael Cluse. For more information about this Symposium, please click here and our Facebook page. The entire event is free, with the exception of the Sustainable Lunch. Tickets for the Lunch can be purchased here. The Sustainable Lunch will be a great opportunity to hear from the farmers about how the US Farm Bill impacts them and our food system. If you are interested in the event, but cannot attend, you can also watch it live streaming here. The Symposium will also feature a reception at the end with food donated from local businesses. The market that I work at will be among the businesses that will be contributing to this effort. We hope that the Symposium sparks a conversation that will continue past the event and that connections made through the event will provide for further fruitful collaborations.