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Forget the Farm Bill: Where We Should Set Our Sights This Year For Real Change

I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I don’t care about the 2012 farm bill. Here’s why. The sustainable food and agriculture movement has a lot of momentum and a lot of opportunities right now, but only limited resources in terms of lobbying power. The movement has a large amount of people who care, … Continued

I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I don’t care about the 2012 farm bill. Here’s why.

The sustainable food and agriculture movement has a lot of momentum and a lot of opportunities right now, but only limited resources in terms of lobbying power. The movement has a large amount of people who care, but a relatively small amount of money compared to entrenched agriculture interests. It has a few strategically placed sympathetic appointees and elected representatives in the government. But, unfortunately, Dennis Kucinich alone cannot pass the vastly revamped farm bill we need.

But outside of Washington, the ranks of those who care about localizing our food supply and making agriculture more sustainable are growing every day. After all, delicious food is a powerful recruiting tool. The sustainable food movement is not powerless. Not nearly. But the movement can make far more progress if it focuses its energy on more winnable issues. Focusing on the farm bill for the whole of 2012 will use up endless resources and result in relatively little gain.

Taking Big Ag Head On

Taking on the farm bill is taking on the entrenched agriculture interests that gave us the food system we have — pesticides, processed food, factory farms, and all — head on. The Agriculture Committees in the House and the Senate are each filled with congressmen and women who are from districts that benefit from keeping the status quo and who receive plenty of donations from agribusiness. In the 2012 election cycle, members of the House Ag committee have collectively taken in $3.7 million in contributions from agribusiness. For comparison, their next biggest donor was the communications industry, which gave them a mere $834,600 in donations. The Senate side is the same, receiving $9.5 million from agribusiness, making it also their largest group of donors.

Historically, some of the more monumental legislative victories for sustainable agriculture were accomplished only by bypassing the Ag Committee. For example, when Sen. Gaylord Nelson decided to introduce a bill to ban DDT, he had his staffer, Roger Blobaum, work to make absolutely sure that it would not go to the Agriculture Committee. “All legislation that had attempted to limit pesticide use had end up in the Ag Committee, and it was a graveyard,” recalled Blobaum. Blobaum instead wrote the bill in such a way that it would go through the Interior Committee, which Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, led. More recently, the Ag Committee was an obstacle to establishing the National Organic Program. But for the farm bill, there’s nowhere to go BUT the Ag Committee.

A Broken Congress

Even if the Agriculture Committee in each house were not such an obstacle, Congress itself is broken right now. Republicans want to accomplish nothing in Congress in order to deny Obama any successes he can claim in his re-election bid. What’s more, Congress is required to cut the deficit any way it can and since Republicans utterly refuse to raise revenues, that means cutting spending. Anything that requires money is difficult to pass through Congress right now, even if it’s something that is desirable and makes sense. And going into a farm bill debate knowing that you can’t ask for much of anything that costs money is like going into a fight with one hand tied behind your back.

In another year, perhaps those who support sustainable agriculture could have said, “OK, we’ll live with some parts of the bill we do not like, but how about a new grant program for organics, or some extra money for popular but underfunded conservation programs?” Last time around, there was a proposal that almost passed to cap subsidies at $250,000 per farm and many hoped Congress would apply the savings to conservation. The same idea is on the table once again — and it might pass, since it so nearly did before — but where will the money saved by it go? Probably to deficit reduction — or in other words, nowhere.

Local Action

Given that there is momentum and resources to work for a more sustainable food system at the moment, why not use it where there will be the most bang for the buck? When small groups of people mobilize on local initiatives, big changes can happen in a short period of time.

San Diego provides an excellent example. A few years ago, after the International Rescue Committee spent $40,000 and nine months to jump the regulatory hurdles required to create a community garden in the city, a small group of citizens took action to change the regulatory requirements. Calling themselves the 1 in 10 Coalition, representing a hope that someday one out of every 10 meals eaten in San Diego would be local food, they worked with the city government to change the law. With the recent changes, the municipal fees for new community gardens have been reduced to zero and residents can keep small numbers of backyard chickens, miniature goats and bees.

A delicious way locals in Wisconsin take action is by enjoying a “Taste of the Market” breakfast at the Dane County farmers’ market all winter long. The winter market lacks the festive atmosphere the market takes on during the warmer months, when it stretches around the Capitol Square and offers a larger variety of foods, but it makes up for it with its spectacular breakfasts. Each week market-goers can enjoy breakfast made from a sampling of local seasonal foods, which might tempt them to buy those same products from the market’s vendors. Eating breakfast is hardly radical, but it’s a gentle and fun way to introduce more Americans to the joys of eating local and sustainable foods and getting to meet the farmers who produced them.

One local action happening simultaneously in several places is the effort to label genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Theoretically, this should be done by the U.S. government, whether by Congress or the FDA, but we’ve been eating unlabeled GMOs since 1996 and so far the federal government thinks that’s fine. But Californians are now collecting signatures to put a measure to label GMOs on their state ballot in the next election. There have also been recent state efforts to label GMOs in Washington, Vermont, and Connecticut. Although Mendocino County, CA became the first county to ban the growing of GMOs within the country altogether back in 2004. And in some states, instead of waiting for bills or ballot initiatives to pass, some consumers are taking matters into their own hands by printing off GMO labels from the internet and putting them on products in the grocery store.

By investing in local action — whether working toward regulatory changes or simply growing a garden and sharing your harvest with friends and neighbors — the movement will grow. Then, when the farm bill comes before Congress again in five or 10 years, there will be more citizens with an interest in sustainable food and agriculture. Changing our food system will no longer be an abstract idea for them, because they’ve felt soil in their hands, collected eggs from their own chickens, and eaten fresh-picked tomatoes from their own garden. With luck, Congress will be better positioned to make changes at that time, too.

A Long-Term Goal

Passing reforms to the food system through the farm bill is not a bad idea. While many things can be regulated by federal agencies like the EPA, thus bypassing Congress altogether, or can be passed separate from the farm bill, certain core elements that shape our food system can only be passed in the farm bill. These include subsidies, conservation programs, and SNAP (the program formerly known as food stamps).

What can be done now is movement building. The sustainable food movement can set its sights on a vision it wants to see accomplished in a future farm bill, maybe ten or twenty years from now, and it can begin to gain support for that vision. This seems to be the direction that organizations like Food and Water Watch and the National Family Farm Coalition are moving in. The current Congress won’t pass a radically different farm bill, but using the current farm bill to start a conversation about what should be done in the future is a good idea.

In order to reach a time when Congress might pass a better farm bill, we need a better Congress — and a better Ag Committee. We also need a better campaign finance system, because in our post-Citizens United world, agribusiness can write unlimited checks to Ag Committee legislators. A first step toward a better farm bill is a limit or ban on corporate funding of elections. A second step is electing legislators who favor sustainable agriculture, and seeing to it that they are appointed to the Ag Committee.

What You Should Watch in the 2012 Farm Bill

There is one good reason to pay some attention to the 2012 farm bill. While major changes in the direction of sustainability are not likely, major changes in the opposite direction are. Conservation programs in particular are on the chopping block. And in the 2002 farm bill, Congress did not get rid of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, one of the farm bill conservation programs, but it did change the rules to allow “factory farms” to qualify for federal conservation dollars.

Thus, sustainable agriculture interests cannot completely ignore the 2012 farm bill. But they might put their staff, time, energy, and money to better use if they simply try to stave off the worst changes going into the farm bill and simultaneously work toward other efforts that are more likely to pay off.