In 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the very first farm bill, formally called the Agricultural Adjustment Act, he told the nation that "an unprecedented condition calls for the trial of new means to rescue agriculture." That legislation, passed as the country struggled to emerge from the Depression, was visionary in the way it employed agricultural policy to address significant national issues, including rural poverty and hunger.
It may not seem obvious while standing in the aisles of a modern grocery store, but the country today faces another food and farming crisis. Forty-six million people — that is, 1 out of 7 Americans — signed up for food stamps in 2012. Despite some of the highest commodity prices in history, the nation's rural regions are falling deeper into poverty. In 2010, according to theU.S. Department of Agriculture, 17.8% of those living in rural counties fell under the poverty line. Unemployment in Fresno County, the nation's top agricultural producing county, stood at 17.4% in March of this year. Industrial agriculture has become a leading cause of soil and water pollution. In California, for example, fertilizer and manure pollution have so contaminated the Salinas and lower San Joaquin valleys that the groundwater will be undrinkable for the next 30 to 50 years.
After 80 years, the time has come to rescue agriculture from the farm bill — and to improve the health of Americans in the bargain.
Numerous food access and healthcare advocates, family farm organizations, sustainable agriculture nonprofits, celebrity chefs and even local governments (including Seattle, New York and Los Angeles) have entered the fray and are calling for reform as Congress works to draft legislation to replace the 2008 farm bill, which expires at the end of September. But the U.S. Senate's first draft of the omnibus legislation — which will be debated over the next few weeks — falls short.
The draft legislation makes it clear that the farm bill remains in the control of powerful agribusiness interests and anti-hunger advocates whose thinking is rooted in the last century.
Throughout the '60s, '70s and '80s, the farm bill provided incentives for farmers to "get big or get out," ushering in our contemporary industrial system of food production. Resulting harm to the environment, human health and rural communities was largely ignored. Unfortunately, current farm bill proposals would continue to disproportionately favor huge operators who have blanketed the land with monocultures.
This year's farm bill will allocate somewhere in the range of $100 billion a year, enough money to target such challenges as the obesity epidemic, water pollution, the loss of soil and biodiversity, and the need to usher in a new generation of farmers, ranchers and land stewards. But that would require at least four fundamental shifts.
Supporting food, not feed. Crop subsidies and federal insurance should be aimed at the foods humans should eat. Currently, the lion's share of subsidies goes to commodity crops used to feed livestock or to produce ethanol or overly processed foods. A shift in what is subsidized should be accompanied by changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to include incentive programs for fruit and vegetable purchases that would help Americans avoid diet-related disease. California's Department of Food and Agriculture, working with nonprofits, has proved these programs can work. Shifting federal dollars from commodities to nutritious foods could save the nation trillions of dollars in health costs in the decades ahead.
Focusing on safeguarding the land. As with the original farm bill, government investments in agriculture should promote conservation and good stewardship. Currently, the farm law can meet only 40% of requests from California farmers and ranchers seeking cost-share dollars for projects to protect water quality, soil health and endangered species. These are investments that benefit us all. The new legislation should shift billions of dollars from subsidies and insurance discounts to conservation programs.
Adding labor to the equation. The farm bill desperately needs a labor policy. Some 6 million farmworkers do the backbreaking work of putting food on America's tables, yet there is no portion of the 1,000-page farm bill that explicitly addresses their need for protection from exploitation. Immigration policy has to be part of the discussion too, since an estimated half of the nation's agricultural workers are undocumented immigrants.
Increasing research. The farm bill is the nation's largest source of funding for agriculture and food research, and at present that is insufficient. This portion of the bill should be greatly expanded with an emphasis on helping food producers and businesses discover and implement solutions to climate change, water scarcity, species degradation, hunger and obesity. If the public won't pay for research that serves us all, large corporations will pay for research that serves only them. At that point, we are in danger of losing control of our food system. Today's concentrated ownership of seed patents justifies this concern.
Every five years or so, the farm bill's renewal presents a tremendous opportunity. In the past, we have often squandered the chance to use it to prepare for a world with more people, less oil, an unpredictable climate and numerous resource challenges. This time, let's get it right.
Dan Imhoff is the author of "Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill." Michael Dimock is president of Roots of Change and chairman emeritus of Slow Food USA.