Published on
The San Francisco Chronicle

Farm Bill - 1 step forward, 3 steps back

Today, the House will be asked to vote for a Farm Bill that keeps intact a food and farming system that has failed our country. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, together with House Agriculture Committee leaders, has called this Farm Bill a step in the direction of reform and good for family farmers. They couldn't be more wrong.

Newspaper headlines in California have lauded the big wins for our state's fruit and vegetable growers. While $1.6 billion for specialty crops is an important step forward, it pales in comparison to the $40 billion proposed for commodity crops and will do little to help our country meet USDA nutrition guidelines for a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Only about 10 percent of this $1.6 billion will go to programs that favor local and healthy food systems, small family farms and organic growers. These are crumbs in a nearly $300 billion bill.

We have missed an historic opportunity to invest more in programs, such as farmers' markets promotion, value-added producer grants and organic research that are small investments, yet yield tremendous health, environmental and economic returns. Ignoring these important benefits, the House Ag Committee eliminated mandatory funding for: the Community Food Projects, one of the more successful and cost effective local food programs. This program has helped San Francisco and many communities across the state increase their access to locally grown healthy food, build entrepreneurship skills among at-risk youth, and create new markets for small farmers.

Most regrettably, Pelosi, a great champion for the environment and children, did not push strongly enough for a Farm Bill that would truly serve both urban and rural populations. Just "follow the money" to understand who benefits from this Farm Bill: Three cotton farmers in California will receive in one year the entire national budget dedicated to organic research and extension. Five corn growers in the Midwest will receive the equivalent of the annual budget dedicated to supporting farmers' markets. Roughly 13,000 rice and cotton growers in California will receive nearly $1 billion in subsidies over three years while our entire state will receive less than $100 million in conservation support.


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The proposed Farm Bill misuses taxpayers' money by leaving in place a subsidy system that encourages over-production of commodities such as corn and soybeans that are at the root of many of our diet-related health problems. It will continue to encourage farmers to grow commodities such as cotton - which uses 16 percent of pesticides applied to crops globally - in ways that harm the environment. It will significantly weaken one of the most important farm conservation innovations in a decade, the Conservation Security Program, while failing to provide adequate funding to help farmers effectively conserve our water, soil and wildlife habitat. It will do precious little to change availability and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in schools and underserved areas, where they are sorely needed. Finally, the bill will do little to stem the tide of failing farms and struggling rural economies.

In a time of scarce resources and "pay as you go" rules, none of us can have it all. But why do so few get so much while so many get so little? Corn and soybean growers, who are experiencing record high prices, continue to reap the benefits, while critical fruit and vegetable programs that invest in the future health of our nation, get short shrift. This reality has brought together a powerful coalition of unlikely bedfellows to demand major commodity reform and a reprioritization of Farm Bill investments.

Yet the best the Democratic leadership of the House and the Ag Committee can offer is a payment limits package that is nothing more than a wolf in sheep's clothing. The sham reform proposal actually increases the amount of overall payments that farmers can receive. This is a significant step backward and one whose net effect would be a large increase in subsidies to mega-farms which drives small farm operations out of business. While the proposal would limit farmers making more than $1 million a year from receiving subsidies, this limit is five times the cap put forward by the Bush administration, and will generate scant new resources and affect just a few thousand farmers.

Farmers, and our nation's health, would be better served by a bill that includes real commodity reform, such as the Dorgan-Grassley bill introduced in the Senate, which closes all loopholes and puts a hard limit of $250,000 on total payments to one farmer. This kind of reform is a good start, and would free up new resources to invest in programs that will deliver far greater health and environmental benefits to all Americans. Now it is up to the Senate to make wiser choices and give us real reform.

Kari Hamerschlag

Kari Hamerschlag is a Senior Agriculture Analyst working in the Environmental Working Group's California office. Prior to working with EWG, Kari worked for many years as a sustainable food policy consultant in the Bay Area, including a year long stint running a Farm Bill campaign for the California Coalition for Food and Farming.

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