Michael Pollan moderates a panel discussion of the 2007 farm bill, now being debated, with guests Dan Imhoff, the author of Food Fight: A Citizen's Guide to the Farm Bill; George Naylor, Iowa corn farmer and president of the National Family Farms Coalition; Ann Cooper, Director of Nutrition Services for the Berkeley school system, and other leaders in the effort to reform federal agricultural policies.
Every five years or so, the President signs an obscure piece of legislation that determines what happens on a couple of hundred million acres of private land in America, what sort of food Americans eat (and how much it costs) and, directly as a result, the health of our population (and which allocates more than $90 BILLION). The American food system is a game played according to a precise set of rules that are written by Congress, typically with virtually no input from anyone beyond a handful of farm-state legislators. Nothing could do more to reform the American food system --an by doing so improve the condition of America's environment and public health-- than if the rest of us were to start paying attention to the farm bill.Who Gets the Money?
For the simplest answer, one might twist a line from Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, "It's the commodity groups, stupid." Thanks to a growing number of nongovernmental, governmental, and mass media resources, following the Farm Bill money trail is not that difficult. (Excellent places to start include Environmental Working Group, Oxfam International, Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the Washington Post, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.) According to the Congressional Research Service, 84 percent of commodity support spending goes to the production of just five crops: corn, cotton, wheat, rice, and soybeans. Half of that money currently goes to just seven states that produce most of those commodities. The richest ten percent of farm-subsidy recipients (many of whom are corporations and absentee landowners who can hardly be classified as "actively engaged" in growing crops) take in more than two-thirds of those payments.
A few other broad brushstrokes:
- Almost 50 percent of all commodity subsidies went to 5 percent of eligible farmers in 2005;
- Subsidies help the largest farms to acquire the best land and squeeze out smaller growers;
- The growth rate for jobs trailed the national average in nearly two-thirds of counties receiving heavy subsidies between 2000 and 2003, according to a recent report.