Thursday, December 2, 2010

Detangling the Farm Bill, Part 2: A History

i.e. how we got to where we are.

A note to readers: this is a macro-history of U.S. farm policy organized around the price and income support programs for farmers & conservation initiatives that have been retroactively labeled “farm bills.” Though nutrition assistance programs do account for more than half of our present farm bill's budget, these are not the principle focus of this post.

Our story picks up in 1933, when rural economies across the United States were caught in a downward spiral.  Under conditions of extreme heat and drought, desperate farmers overworked land to squeeze out maximum yields, bringing prices down and further wrecking the land (to become the Dust Bowl). Recognizing that an unregulated market was depressing the rural sector, the Department of Agriculture proposed several safety nets to be funded by taxpayers under The Agricultural Adjustment Act (read: our very first farm bill). This act set a price floor for agricultural goods so that farmers were guaranteed fair pay for their products.  It also set up a system to store grains so they wouldn’t flood the market and depress prices during harvest season. Finally, soil conservation policies funded farmers to leave land fallow and to protect finite groundwater reserves.

World War II brought enormous international demand for American food, and as market prices in the agricultural sector skyrocketed, conservation programs were abandoned to meet demand. However, the government's main role was still to limit production and champion farming interests over big business.  That is, until the 1970s and true industrialization of agriculture under the “get-big-or-get-out” mantra of Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. 

Deeming conservation policies anti-business, Butz ordered all arable land into production.  Skeptics remembered the Depression’s disastrous experience with overproduction, but Butz calmed fears through free trade agreements that opened foreign markets for the vast surpluses that American farmers were now generating. The food stamp program provided another avenue for the Department of Agriculture to unload the extras- onto the plates of hungry Americans.  Crop yields of the 70s truly dwarfed those of earlier eras thanks to noxious cocktails engineered by companies like Dow and Monsanto, who rerouted the chemicals they had produced for the Vietnam War onto American farmland.  Retooled "subsidy" programs (funding from the government to make an industry economically viable) grew certain calories- namely corn and soy- cheaper than ever before.  Meanwhile, funding for so-called "specialty crops" like fruits and vegetables remained minimal, and methods of cultivation devastated land and water systems.  These subsidies continue to provide the animal feed to keep meat and dairy cheap and have spawned an era of foods largely processed from derivations of corn.  Small-scale, sustainable farmers are indebted and unsupported- and we're losing them.

And so the curtain opens on the food landscape we see today. Congress authorized nearly $300 billion for the 2008 farm bill, which continues to favor industrial over sustainable farms, quantity over quality, and processed foods over whole ones. But at least it’s cheap, right?

Amidst compounding crises of diabetes, obesity, and environmental degradation, nearly everyone is paying dearly for low-cost food.  So next time, we ponder: where exactly do those $300 billion go (and where do they not)??

Thanks for reading, and please consider supporting Lettuce Link this holiday season as we continue to envision a city with fresh, nourishing, and affordable food for all.

--Amelia Swinton

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