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Tuesday, 05 March 2013 07:37

The Farm Bill: Who’s Paying, Who’s Profiting

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The Farm Bill may be responsible for what’s on our plate, but it is not acting responsibly. The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, nicknamed the Farm Bill, is the primary agricultural policy tool of the U.S. government; it regulates international food trade, food stamps, and allocates funding to support farmers. It is responsible for the nutrition of 45 million low-income Americans- half of them children- enrolled in its food stamp program.

Americans on food stamps stretch their assistance dollars as far as possible. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the Farm Bill to subsidize healthful fruits and vegetables to make them the financially accessible as well as favorable choice. However, in the bill, nutrition is overshadowed by business interests. Since 2008 farmers have received annual subsidies of approximately $17.3 billion to support commodities such as wheat, corn, grain sorghum, barley, oats, upland cotton, long-grain rice, medium-grain rice, soybeans, peanuts, and other oilseeds, and cheddar cheese, butter, and nonfat dry milk. In 2008, $4.2 billion went to subsidizing corn alone - the one vegetable on that list, which, according to Michael Pollan, doesn’t even make it to our table on a cob. Among its primary uses are producing rapidly fattening cows and ethanol, both multi-billion dollar industries.

In contrast to grandiose commodity crop spending, a mere $55 million per year is allocated to grants for fruit and vegetable crops, known in the Farm Bill as “specialty crops”. The bills states that “A competitive specialty crop industry in the United States is necessary for the production of an abundant, affordable supply of highly nutritious fruits, vegetables, and other specialty crops, which are vital to the health and well-being of all Americans.” According to Mark Bittman of the New York Times, if all Americans were to eat the daily recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables there would not be enough to go around. Congress is aware that Specialty Crops are more nutritious, but they keep them nearly unsubsidized, and therefore relatively expensive and in short supply.

In fairness, there is a small movement to get a few more vegetables on the scene. The 2008 Farm Bill permits the production of cucumbers, green peas, lima beans, pumpkins, snap beans, sweet corn, and tomatoes for processing on thousands of acres in the Midwest, which in the past had been land strictly prohibited from being used for nearly all fruit or vegetable crops. Other new crop ventures funded by the bill include a $35 million project to develop hard white wheat, $10 million a year to develop durum wheat, and an incentive program to develop “oilseeds with special traits that enhance human health.” How about subsidizing fruits and vegetables known to benefit human health?

The Farm Bill pursues its economic goals at the cost of the people it is supposed to protect, those with food insecurity. Atlanta resident, Revisha Martinez, can spend $3 at the supermarket and purchase one peach for each member of her family or for the same price can go home with 6 boxes or 18 servings of fortified macaroni and cheese. Martinez feeds four kids on her husband’s salary as a retired bus driver. "There is no doubt we would buy more peaches if they were cheaper. My kids really do love fruits and vegetables. When we get them, it's a big treat."

In 2012 when the Farm Bill comes under review hopefully the obesity and diabetes epidemic, especially among the low-income, will be enough to convince legislators that our nation needs fundamental policy changes that incentivize farmers to grow fruits and vegetables, not just commodity crops like corn, soybeans, and animal feed. The pendulum should swing away from the interests of large agro-business and toward supporting small and middle size fresh produce growers that boost local economies and increase availability and affordability of produce.

Legislators have the opportunity to transform health outcomes for the Martinez family and millions of other Americans without spending a dime, simply shifting how the billions of dollars allocated to farm subsidies are spent. We will see in the coming year if the health of families and individuals prevails over the interests of corporations and agro-businesses.