An Introduction to the US Food System, Week 4: Food and Farm Policy

Here are my notes from Week 4 of the free, online course I’m taking on US Food Systems from Johns Hopkins. I cleaned them up a bit, but they’re still pretty raw: just for my reference and your education. Read previous weeks’ notes here: Week 1, Week 2, Week 3. This week, I particularly enjoyed the TEDxManhattan lecture, From Fables to Labels, which is only 13 minutes long. Check it out!

This week’s lectures and readings cover the past, present, and future of the Farm Bill and US food policy.

Farm Bill History

Overview
Many policies affect food at federal, state, local levels. State and local levels a “laboratory” for policies that might be able to be scaled up to a federal level

It’s a public health bill; it affects:

  1. What we eat
  2. Environmental health/sustainability
  3. Food security
  4. Equity
  5. Rural public health

We need government in agriculture. Why?

  • Farmers need security in order to go into business. Weather unpredictable; market unpredictable.
  • Protect environment: Farmers tend to overproduce and use unsustainable practices
  • Ensure food supply: Consumers need to be able to afford and access food

Farm policy over the years

  • 1800s western expansion of farming. Homestead act, railroads
  • 1914 extension system through university partnerships to increase use of technology, productivity
  • Tearing up prairies to put in crops, leave fields open w/out cover crops. Topsoil blew away. Droughts + wind -> erosion -> dustbowl
  • 30s: Farmers hungry and demonstrating, consumers hungry and demonstrating -> first Farm Bill
  • New Deal brought first Farm Bill in 1933 to stabilize prices
    • Ever-normal Granary: store crops to stabilize prices
    • Mandatory idling of land to limit overproduction and keep prices up
    • Land and water conservation
    • Subsidized school lunches
  • 1938, 49 bills are permanent legislation–if we can’t pass a farm bill we return here!
    • 1949 started donating surplus food overseas
  • 1970 some stuff in the bill became voluntary instead of mandatory
  • 1973 big changes
    • Wetlands drained, forests cut down to increase farmland (“Fencerow to fencerow”)
    • Maximize yield rather than manage supply
    • Trend towards big farms
    • Processes industrialized
    • Foodstamps introduced
  • 1985 and 1990 more environmental programs–maybe because of problems from 1973 changes?
    • Conservation
    • Wetlands preservation
    • Research into sustainability
  • 1996 “Freedom to Farm”
    • High commodity prices, high incomes
    • Aim to end govt intervention in commodities (land idling, reserves, prices support policies)
    • Ending govt intervention led to price drop, more govt payouts -> dropped plan to end subsidies
  • Subsidy levels currently high following bill having purpose of ending subsidies!

2008 Farm Bill Policy
Food, Conservation, and Energy Act

  • 800+ pages
  • about 2/3 of it is Nutrition section, then Commodities, then Conservation
  • Most money spent on SNAP program

What Farm Bill supports does not look like what govt recommends we eat!

Fruits and veg have become more expensive, junk less expensive over the years. Based on subsidies for commodities?

Commodities: where all individual items interchangeable: corn, wheat; and can be stored or processed

Commodity subsidies:

  • Direct payments
  • Countercyclical payments
  • Lots of other assistance
  • $5.2B/yr per 2008 bill
  • More than 80% of $ goes to corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans, rice
  • 20% of recipients get 90% of the money
  • Crops sold at lower-than-production prices, so subsidies are safety nets and keep farmers farming
  • Do subsidies drive overproduction, or does lack of price stability drive overproduction? Seems to be lack of price stability
  • Do subsidies drive obesity? Unclear:
    • Yes: processed food crops, marketing, concentrate power in food industry
    • No: see our same obesity trajectory in other countries, farm price has small impact on food price

Current food supply would not allow for everyone in US to follow govt’s nutritional guidelines

How can Farm Bill increase fruit/veg production?

  • Research to build yields
  • Provide growers insurance and loans (like other growers get)
  • Marketing funds

How can Farm Bill increase access to healthy food?

  • Bring free healthy snacks into schools
  • Support farmers’ markets
  • Support community initiatives
  • Allow schools to say they want their food to come from local/regional sources
  • Incentives for SNAP program to buy fresh fruit/veg

How can Farm Bill improve environmental health/sustainability?

  • Address problems from incentive to overproduce
    • Gulf of Mexico deadzone from areas where most subsidies are given (fertilizer)
    • CAFOs, pesticides, decreased biodiversity
  • Conservation compliance
    • If you’re farming on conservation land, you must meet minimum reqs. Possibly has improved erosion
  • Conservation reserve
    • Pays farmers rent to take land out of production to restore groundcover
    • Farmers taking land out of program as they realize they can make more $ farming it
  • Conservation stewardship
    • Rewards for conservations initiatives across entire farm
  • EQIP
    • Assistance for sustainable practices
      • Switching to organic
      • Energy conservation
      • Forest/water conservation
    • Might be misused by big livestock corps: 60% of $ goes to livestock producers
  • Organics support
  • Renewable energy
    • Shift away from ethanol

Other Farm Bill programs:

  • Hunger and food security: SNAP, food banks, incentives to buy fresh fruit/veg, research
  • US Food aid internationally: ocean shipping takes 4-6 months to arrive. Undermines local farmers. Profits to Big Ag and shippers. 2008 FB tries giving cash instead.
  • Equity provisions: Livestock growers given more power to promote competition
  • Rural healthcare: telemedicine
  • Research: healthy/sustainable production methods, climate change, peak oil, nutrition, food safety, obesity, food security

Farm Bill Today

Farm Bill Politics
Ag committees in house and senate: senators and reps from farming states, mostly commodity production areas.

Stakeholders: Agriculture, agribusiness. Anti-hunger community becoming stronger player. Sustainable ag, environment community, int’l development, community food security, public health, cities

Public health’s involvement:

  • Success with priorities in 2008 bill
  • 2012 how to be most effective?
    • Ally with agriculture, nutrition, other groups

2012 Farm Bill
Marker bills hoping to get into bill:

  • Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act
  • Healthy Food Financing Initiative

Money devoted to 37 programs due to expire–many public health and conservation

Republicans wanted to change SNAP; farmers wanted to end direct payments program to be replaced by crop insurance. Taking away direct payments removes requirement to adhere to conservation policies.

Budget problems: focus on low-cost programs.

Election year: extra political shenanigans in 2012

  • Sequestration could cut $7B from FB
  • Senate wrote and passed a FB cutting $23B
  • House Ag committee passed a FB cutting $35B; didn’t make it to the floor. Why?
    • Repubs cut SNAP benefits; Dems didn’t like
    • Debates could harm candidates
    • Spending so much $ could harm candidates
    • Removing benefits could harm candidates

Drought: worst in 25 years impacts farmers, increases need for farmer help in bill

Farm Bill expired Oct 1, 2012. Revert to 1938, 1949 Farm Bills–expensive, unrealistic to apply to modern times. Extension to end of Sept 2013 agreed upon by House and Senate Ag Committees, but full Congress didn’t like it–would threaten fiscal cliff legislation. McConnell and Biden came up with their own extension and put it into fiscal cliff legislation, and it passed. Committee leadership furious. What was it?

  • Prevents dairy price increase–BUT–
  • No input from committee leadership
  • No reforms
    • No changes to SNAP
    • Direct payments kept
  • No deficit reduction
  • The 37 programs due to expire expired
  • Probably no new enrollment in conservation stewardship
  • No disaster protection for most farmers
  • Many mandatory conservation programs became discretionary

Challenges upcoming: sequestration, debt ceiling, new committee members. Need to pass a better FB soon.

Important things missing from discussion:

  • Climate change
  • Industrial farm animal production
  • Commodity program reform
  • Competition
  • Worker health

Need expansion:

  • Support for farmers who are new, sustainable, diversified, transitioning to better practices, fruit/veg producers, small/mid-sized, or socially disadvantaged
  • Increase local/regional, healthy food demand
  • Local/regional food infrastructure improvements
  • Research for healthier food system

TEDxManhattan lecture: From Fables to Labels

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mZ2KQ9iB_8&feature=player_embedded

  1. Consumers will pay more for labels that they think add value
  2. Consumers are misled to believe that some labels are meaningful
  3. That dilutes consumer demand, and dilutes moving the marketplace forward

Labels need to be truthful:

  • Natural: manufacturers can use it to mean whatever they want. Polls show consumers confuse this with organic, which has 600p of standards, is a regulated program
  • Fresh: can use it on frozen chicken!?
  • Free range: means animals have option to go outdoors for undefined period of time. Doesn’t mean they actually went out.

… transparent:

  • GMOs: not enough science behind it, most people want labelling
  • Mad cow tested: govt left some loopholes in animal feed in place, so Japan said they didn’t want our beef. A farm wanted to test themselves and give themselves this label, but gov’t said no, the test isn’t good enough–even though it’s the same test the gov’t uses to test for mad cow.
  • Carbon monoxide added: to improve red color in meat. Considered a food additive by FDA, so no labelling required
  • Country of origin labelling: animals often born, raised, slaughtered in different countries. Int’l complaining that it’s not good for trade so this label is in peril.

… trustworthy:

  • Redefinition of HFCS. Calling it corn sugar. Shouldn’t be allowed to change name to confuse consumers.
  • Cold-pasturized: meat producers don’t want to call it irradiation. Irradiation isn’t held to same health standards as pasturization
  • No nitrates: natural nitrates same as synthetics, but gov’t allows labels to say no nitrates if natural nitrates are used.

Good labels: organic, grass fed, Animal Welfare Approved


Reading: Principles for Framing a Healthy Food System

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19320240903321219

Principles for moving toward a healthy food system:

Principle 1: It would insure community food security for all residents
Principle 2: It would be community-based
Principle 3: It would be locally integrated
–Not reasonable to expect all food to be grown locally
Principle 4: It would be reasonably seasonal in nature
Principle 5: Present primarily opportunities rather than problems
Principle 6: Connect “healthy” across the layers of the system
–Soil to plants (to animals) to people to communities
Principle 7: Be diverse


Reading: A 50-Year Farm Bill

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/05/opinion/05berry.html?emc=eta1&_r=2&

Soil is abused and non-renewable. More valuable than oil but no lobby.

  • Erosion
  • Polluted by fertilizers, pesticides

Industrial agriculture relies on fossil fuels

We’re headed for disaster. Need to:

  • Rotate crops for year-round soil coverage
  • Develop grain-bearing perennials

“We need a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities.”


Reading: Do Farm Subsidies Cause Obesity

http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/tools-and-resources/do-farm-subsidies-cause-obesity/

Deregulation of commodities, not subsidies, has impacted commodity crop prices, incentives to businesses leading to more processed food consumption

Recommendations:

  • Reform commodity policies by developing responsible federal supply management
  • Increase consumption of fruits, veg, whole grains, especially in underserved communities
  • Help farmers diversify crops and supply local/regional markets
  • Improve infrastructure of healthy food delivery

Findings:

  • Removing subsidies would not curb overproduction of commodity crops
    • Because farmers collectively tend to overproduce without some sort of government intervention, the academic literature finds that subsidies themselves do not cause overproduction
    • If subsidies were removed, farmers’ income would drop, causing smaller farms to be sold to larger farms. Overproduction would not decrease.
  • Low commodity prices offer savings to the food industry, but not to consumers at the grocery
    • Low feed prices for animals, low corn prices for HFCS
    • Over the last 3 decades, grocery prices have gone steadily up, but corn prices have fluctuated wildly
    • Commodity prices make up tiny percent of retail cost of food. Most $ goes to makers, retail, marketers
  • The food industry has been the main driver of commodity policy, not farmers
    • Livestock industry wants high production and low prices for feed
  • Removing subsidies before commodity supply and prices have been managed will not stop overproduction, but could harm small/mid-sized farms
    • 82% of small/mid-sized farms receive subsidies
    • Need to support small/mid-sized farms as they are able to diversify and supply local/regional markets

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