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Sowing Disaster: Why We Need a New Farm Bill

Christopher D. Cook

Congress passes its share of boondoggles, but there's a real doozy on the docket April 18. If the nearly $300 billion Farm Bill passes in its current form, the American public will pay billions of dollars to large-scale farmers and food corporations for the following end results: an oversupply of unhealthful junk food that worsens our national obesity epidemic; severe depletion of soil and air through overuse of pesticides and destructive farming practices; and the hastened removal of small farms from the land, eroding the spirit and finances of rural communities across the U.S.

To be sure, there are positive elements in the bill, which gets revisited every five years. There's funding for conservation and nutrition programs, even small bits (in the $5 million range) for innovative community food security projects that expand markets for small farmers while making food accessible to poor inner-city residents. But the bill's Commodity Title erases all that - using tax dollars of up to $20 billion a year to finance big growers' production of corn, wheat, and other commodities that are used as ingredients in everything from cooking oil, to sweeteners and fattening agents in processed foods, to livestock feed and auto fuel.

While supporting farmers to produce basic foodstuffs is a laudable policy goal, our current farm-subsidy system accomplishes something far different, propping up profoundly unsustainable growing practices while undermining the nation's health and its farming and food future. By upholding subsidies for big agriculture, Congress is not only wasting taxpayer dollars at a time of soaring crop and food prices; more fundamentally, it's undermining vital efforts to make our food supply more healthful and sustainable, both environmentally and economically.

Consider just a few numbers. Seventy-five percent of subsidies go to a handful of commodities (mostly wheat, corn, and oilseeds) used as food additives, making highly processed junk food cheap -- while fruits and vegetables and whole foods get no payments at all. Nearly 70 percent of farm payments go to the top ten percent of the country's biggest growers -- while America loses one farm every half an hour, 15,000 per year. This form of corporate welfare encourages the ongoing consolidation of farming and food production into fewer hands while removing small and mid-sized farmers who can no longer compete in this unlevel playing field. Meanwhile, by skewing payments toward large-scale farming, these subsidies promote ecologically damaging intensive pesticide use and severe depletion of precious topsoils -- while organic foods, often exorbitantly expensive, get no supports at all. As a nation we dump nearly half a million tons of toxic pesticides on the land, polluting the air, often sickening nearby residents, and tainting rivers and streams, to say nothing of our food supply which is covered in pesticide residue.

Even as Congress appears poised to approve this damaging legislation, we need to start a new national discussion on our country's food and farming priorities. Instead of spending more money to produce cheap raw ingredients for the meat industry and food processing corporations, we need a radically different yet ultimately sensible New Deal for food that invests the public's money in sustainable growing practices, organic foods, and small and mid-sized farms that form the bedrock -- both economically and socially -- of communities throughout America's heartland.

Hardly a romantic nod to the past, such an overhaul is an investment in the future. As global warming heats up, we cannot afford a food system that guzzles 100 billion gallons a year in pesticides and long-distance transit of packaged foods. As obesity hits thirty percent of the population - harming individual lives and costing the public more than $100 billion in related health costs -- we cannot afford to finance cheap junk food and excessive meat consumption. And we can ill afford to continue paying large-scale commodity growers to plunder our fast-eroding soils while making it near impossible for smaller diversified growers to compete and survive. Programs that revive local foods and small farms -- via farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture, and school purchasing programs -- are gaining ground across the country. Consumers show they are hungering for organic foods, and for more farmer's markets, where growers can increase profits while food prices remain the same or lower than in supermarkets.

The public's money ought to finance sustainability in its truest sense - supporting farms and food programs that sustain local economies, our health, and the future of farmlands, instead of agribusiness and food corporations that plumb the land and these communities for short-term profit. As Congress lurches toward destructive old policies, now is the time to cast our vote for a new path the next time around.

Christopher D. Cook is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor, Harper's and elsewhere.

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