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Sunday, November 04, 2007

"The Eaters Have Spoken"

Have the politics surrounding the farm bill shifted to give consumers a stronger voice in negotiations that have traditionally favored the interests of producers? Michael Pollan thinks so, but don't increase your Twinkie budget just yet:

Weed It and Reap By Michael Pollan, Commentary, NY Times: ...A new politics has sprouted up around the farm bill... The eaters have spoken, much to the consternation of farm-state legislators who have fought hard — and at least so far with success — to preserve the status quo.

Americans have begun to ask why the farm bill is subsidizing high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils at a time when rates of diabetes and obesity among children are soaring, or why the farm bill is underwriting factory farming (with subsidized grain) when feedlot wastes are polluting the countryside and, all too often, the meat supply. For the first time, the public health community has raised its voice in support of overturning farm policies that subsidize precisely the wrong kind of calories (added fat and added sugar), helping to make Twinkies cheaper than carrots and Coca-Cola competitive with water. Also for the first time, the international development community has weighed in on the debate, arguing that subsidized American exports are hobbling cotton farmers in Nigeria and corn farmers in Mexico.

On Capitol Hill, hearings on the farm bill have been packed, and newspapers like The San Francisco Chronicle are covering the legislation as closely as The Des Moines Register, bringing an unprecedented level of attention to what has long been one of the most obscure ... pieces of legislation in Congress. Sensing the winds of reform at his back, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told a reporter in July: “This is not just a farm bill. It’s a food bill, and Americans who eat want a stake in it.”

Right now, that stake is looking more like a toothpick. Americans who eat have little to celebrate in the bill that Mr. Harkin is expected to bring to the floor this week. Like the House bill passed in July, the Senate product is very much a farm bill in the traditional let-them-eat-high-fructose-corn-syrup mold. ...

How could this have happened? For starters, farm bill critics did a far better job demonizing subsidies ... than they did proposing alternative — and politically appealing — forms of farm support. And then the farm lobby did what it has always done: bought off its critics with “programs.” For that reason “Americans who eat” can expect some nutritious crumbs from the farm bill, just enough to ensure that reform-minded legislators will hold their noses and support it.

It’s an old story: the “hunger lobby” gets its food stamps so long as the farm lobby can have its subsidies. Similar, if less lavish, terms are now being offered to the public health and environmental “interests” to get them on board. ... There’s ... money for ... an additional $4 billion in the Senate bill to protect wetlands and grasslands and reward farmers for environmental stewardship, and billions in the House bill for environmental cleanup. There’s an important provision in both bills that will make it easier for schools to buy food from local farmers. And there’s money to promote farmers’ markets and otherwise support the local food movement.

But as important as these programs are, they are just programs — mere fleas on the elephant in the room. The name of that elephant is the commodity title, the all-important subsidy section of the bill. It dictates the rules of the entire food system. As long as the commodity title remains untouched, the way we eat will remain unchanged. ...

However many worthwhile programs get tacked onto the farm bill to buy off its critics, they won’t bring meaningful reform to the American food system until the subsidies are addressed — until the underlying rules of the food game are rewritten. This is a conversation that the Old Guard on the agriculture committees simply does not want to have, at least not with us. ...

What finally emerges from Congress depends on exactly who is paying closest attention next week on the Senate floor and then later in the conference committee. We know the American Farm Bureau will be on the case, defending the commodity title on behalf of those who benefit from it most: the biggest commodity farmers, the corporations who sell them chemicals and equipment and, most of all, the buyers of cheap agricultural commodities — companies like Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.

In the past that alliance could have passed a farm bill like this one without breaking a sweat. But the politics of food have changed, and probably for good. If the eaters and all the other “people on the outside” make themselves heard, we just might end up with something that looks less like a farm bill and more like the food bill a poorly fed America so badly needs.

    Posted by on Sunday, November 4, 2007 at 12:15 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (6)

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