Subtitle: Bigger Food System Change on the Horizon
The recent failure of the Farm Bill to pass the U.S. House of Representatives has been widely touted as another indication of how nothing useful can get done by Congress these days, and that interpretation has plenty of merit. But this unexpected collapse in the process may also signal just how far away from the needs of ordinary farmers the “Farm” Bill had drifted. Much has been said about the divisiveness of SNAP (i.e. food stamp) benefits in the bill, but the real potential losses to rank-and-file food producers came in the guise of one successful amendment to please the dairy industry (contrary to most dairy farmers), and another failed one that would have put limits on crop insurance subsidies for larger farms. Combined, these factors left the legislation without much of a cheering section, which proved fatal in the end.
In any case, the Farm Bill as we know it is critically flawed. Some simple math will make the point. It starts with the basic fact that about 80% of this government largesse goes for food stamps (no matter how worthwhile), and only 20% to agriculture of any kind. Then take into account that the share afforded to agriculture is similarly weighted, in a disproportionate way, toward what I will call the “industrial end of the spectrum” and away from family-scale farming. But even the latter portion is slanted toward supporting the troubled status quo, or conventional methods of farming. What we are left with is perhaps one or two percent of the entire Farm Bill being applied to what we can clearly recognize as programs focused on sustainability and local food systems. There are many laudable attempts being made to redress this basic structure, as with programs to expand use of SNAP benefits at farmers markets, but the fact remains that the overarching structure of Farm Bill funding acts like a prison within which the promise of more progressive food and farm policy is constrained.
Make no mistake, Congress will probably do something about farm policy by year’s end, and it may yet be much worse for most farmers, as with the infamously bad Farm Bill extension that passed in the middle of the night on New Year’s Eve. But why should we be surprised by that? Despite all the attention being given these days to sustainable farming systems and locally raised foods, all policy indicators are beating a path with abandon in the opposite direction. This would include not only the Farm Bill, but the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the emerging Trans-Pacific Partnership (i.e. free trade agreement), and even the immigration reform bill now working its way through Congress. Everything is pointing toward a future in which the least preferred sources of food will be the most successful at dealing with new regulations and acquiring government supports. Why is it, one might ask, that the noose seems to be tightening on one of the most positive cultural trends to come along in decades, the Good Food Movement?
If you ask me, we need to totally give up on two heretofore celebrated and sacrosanct assumptions: 1) that we can achieve the society in which we prefer to live through policy incentives, and 2) that the kind of change we really need can occur incrementally. In the real world, policy follows social change – it doesn’t create it – and it is also clear that the forces out there with a preference for cheap, anonymous, unremarkable food will not go quietly, without a fight. After all, Twinkies are back.
So what is the solution? If the answer was clear, I wouldn’t need to write about it. But it does seem, if we dismiss the indicated assumptions, that change will come more in the trenches of the food system, and we will have to work much harder at it than we have up to now. It’s not that our cause is exactly the same, but citizens of several countries in northern Africa and the Middle East, plus Turkey and Brazil, have figured out that taking to the streets is a necessary part of the process. For us it may look different, but surely can happen in the streets. What if, for instance, very large numbers of people started gathering one day per week, in both small towns and major cities, to publicly eat food that is locally and sustainably produced, in ways that challenge overly restrictive food regulations? What if we totally boycotted companies that are exporting food in ways that threaten the public health and economic viability of farms in other countries? What if we all just stopped eating food of unknown origin?
Food system change, when it does occur, is likely to come more abruptly and in larger chunks than we have expected. This may be the only way for it to happen, given the forces and structures working against it. We may not even recognize it when it does come as the change we were hoping to achieve, but it will be distinguished by the way it benefits the bulk of farmers and typical non-farming eaters alike. I have always liked the PASA mission statement as an expression of what we hope and expect to see in the not-so-distant future: promoting profitable farms that produce healthy food for all people while respecting the natural environment. To my mind, we will not get there without the earnest efforts of organizations like PASA, located all over the country, that can provide a middle ground for farmers and consumers to build the healthy, just and sustainable food system – and society – that we really want.
My point, however, is that none of this will happen until we are raring and ready to insist on it. The time may indeed already be here – it’s the whole enchilada, or we all go hungry for want of a life in which average folks producing and consuming good food matter again. The choice is very much ours to make.