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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Farm Bill Food Fight

Air Date: Week of
Small family farms like this one in Lafayette, Colorado, don’t get as much support as big agribusiness. (Photo: Flickr CC/Let Ideas Compete)

The Farm Bill sets the law for virtually everything we eat in the United States, and it’s now up for reauthorization in Congress. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Daniel Imhoff, author of “Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill” to learn if Congress will put real reforms into the new Farm Bill.


GELLERMAN: If you are what you eat, then you are the American Farm Bill. Because the massive bill, which comes up for re-authorization about every five years, covers virtually everything in the American diet - and then some.

The farm bill sets environmental policy on more than 900 million acres or 40 percent of the nation’s lands, it determines what your kids will eat in school lunch, and who gets food stamps. The Farm Bill recently passed in the Senate by a wide margin; now it goes to the House. Daniel Imhoff is the author of “Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill”.

IMHOFF: When you look at the farm bill it’s answering a very, very basic question: What is government’s role in the food system? And in the food system, I mean how in we grow and take care of the resources that our food comes from, and also ensuring that everybody has enough to eat.

GELLERMAN: I was trying to do my homework for this interview, and I had trouble finding out a basic fact. That is… what’s the price tag for this?

IMHOFF: The price tag is about $100 billion dollars per year. When they’re planning out what is going to happen, they’re often looking 10 years ahead. So in about 10 years, that’d be about a trillion dollars.

GELLERMAN: So, 100 billion dollars a year - that’s real money in anybody’s pocket.

IMHOFF: It’s real money. I mean the interesting thing that has happened in the last five years is that the amount of money that goes toward food stamps and nutrition assistance has really ballooned. So, 80 cents of every dollar spent right now goes to the food stamp program.

GELLERMAN: Now, it’s no longer called the food stamp program, it’s called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.


GELLERMAN: Mm hmm. As I understand it, one American in seven is on SNAP.

IMHOFF: Imagine if you’re looking around the country and you’re looking around your community or city - one out of every seven Americans is on some kind of food assistance. It’s really a testament to how deep the recession has hit the average American.

Fruits and vegetable may be part of a healthy diet, but they’re not supported. (Photo: Flickr CC/ Marj Joly)

GELLERMAN: So, if 80 percent of 100 billion dollars a year goes to what we call SNAP, or food stamps, then the other 20 percent goes to our nation’s farmers. How do they divvy that up?

IMHOFF: It basically gets divvied up by commodity crops.

GELLERMAN: And by commodities you mean things like corn, sorghum, that kind of thing?

IMHOFF: Yeah, store-able crops. Oil seed crops, feed crops for animals. This bill is primarily a feed bill, when you look at it. There is a very narrow band of crops that are really supported by government programs. Corn is the big winner. And we have soybeans, rice, wheat, cotton, milk.

What you find is that over time these subsidies that go toward agriculture and crop insurance - they mainly go to the biggest growers. So, the top 20 percent of farms get 80 percent of the subsidies. And the bigger you are, the more subsidies you get, that’s kinda how the game works.

GELLERMAN: So, Dan, why not just do away with subsidies, then? Why not just let the market dictate what happens on the farm?

IMHOFF: Because there is too much good that can come from careful investment in our farms, in our family farms and in rebuilding our food production infrastructure. The real question is – why are we so beholden to these huge agro-business interests in this process?

GELLERMAN: I know it was Senator Debbie Stabanow from Michigan, she’s a Democrat, who said, quote: ‘This farm bill is the most significant reform to farm programs in decades.’

IMHOFF: Well, with all respect to Debbie Stabanow, who I know worked really hard to actually just get a bill done this year in a timely fashion, I'm not sure that we’re going to get the significant reform that America really deserves. As a taxpayer, as a concerned citizen, the biggest thing that we get from these farm bills is conservation and protecting the soil, protecting the water, making sure that we have natural resources that we can give to the next generation.

Almost every step of the way, big agriculture fights basic conservation requirements that we could attach to payments. They also fight eligibility requirements - any type of legislation that’s trying to say: look, a family farmer who’s working, who needs help is one thing. An agro-business who’s using federal subsidies to capitalize their expansion, become more industrial, is a different thing. And I don’t see that this farm bill really addresses those two very, very fundamental issues.

GELLERMAN: The Senate Farm Bill, which actually passed 64-35, would actually cut conservation by, I guess, 10 percent.

IMHOFF: You know, conservation is always in the cross-hairs. It’s one of the three legs of the stool - the Farm Bill stool: the nutrition programs, the agricultural land-based programs, and then the conservation programs. But it’s the thinnest leg of the three, and definitely doesn't benefit from that huge lobby, you know, that the other titles do.

GELLERMAN: I was looking at two food pyramids, basically. One was the traditional food pyramid, of what we should nutritionally eat. And then I was looking at where the money for the farm bill gets apportioned, and they’re two opposite pyramids! The money that we spend on corn and supporting meat production is exactly the opposite of this suggested food pyramid.

Daniel Imhoff.

IMHOFF: We’re at a new moment in time and the Farm Bill hasn’t caught up quite yet with the realities of how food affects our health. I think what you’re seeing when you’re looking at My Plate - the guidelines that come out from the new USDA - that says that half of our plate should be covered with fruits and vegetables, a quarter with grains, and then a quarter with some kind of protein.

And when we look at the subsidy plate, we’re still having priorities that are rooted in the 1970s and the 80s. This is the policy challenge right now in America. How do we create an agricultural system that protects the soil, it’s resilient to all kinds of changes that we’re going to face - from climate change to increasing oil prices - and then also how do we tailor that food output to our nutritional needs, and the challenge that two out of every three Americans is overweight, and is not eating well? Our real challenge is: How do we get leadership to follow these very, very strong public concerns about where we want our food and farm dollars spent?

GELLERMAN: Daniel, thanks very much!

IMHOFF: Thanks a lot for having me!

GELLERMAN: We’ve been speaking to Daniel Imhoff, his book is “Food Fight, the Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill.”



Find books by Daniel Imhoff at Watershed Media

Learn more about the Farm Bill on Marion Nestle’s blog

And at the Farm Bill Primer website


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