April 23, 2019
In 1933, President Roosevelt’s New Deal included the creation of the first-ever Farm Bill, a response to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, the epic drought disaster that was devastating the agriculture sector in the United States. Today, the goals and impact of the Farm Bill couldn’t be any further from what was intended almost 90 years ago.
Earlier this month, the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) hosted a panel discussion on the Farm Bill, with authors Christina Badaracco and Dan Imhoff, and Adam Sheingate, Johns Hopkins professor of political science. The original intent of the Farm Bill, Imhoff said, was to incentivize farmers to protect and preserve wild habitat so that ecosystems could stabilize and recover, and this was going to be achieved by discouraging the bad farming practices that contributed to the Dust Bowl and by preserving natural resources. The other critical goal of the bill was to feed the burgeoning population of hungry Americans.
A decade after its creation, Badaracco noted, the Farm Bill became tightly linked to national security, when 40 percent of the Americans who applied to serve in the armed forces were rejected because of undernutrition. That statistic stimulated the creation of the national school lunch program in the 1940s. Today, says Badaracco, almost one third of Americans are too obese to serve, and people are forced to leave the military because of weight problems.
She addressed the problem of overweight in the military by sharing what she learned about the soldiers’ diets. “When you look at the food products developed for the military, they’re all made with soy protein isolate and high fructose corn syrup [because] they need to be shelf-stable and energy-dense,” said Badaracco.
In the early days of the Farm Bill, Imhoff says, overproduction was the main source of agricultural woe, and the federal government stepped in to discourage this by paying the farmer not to produce. This principle has been turned on its head, though, creating a byzantine system of subsidies, with federal spending of about $100 billion in taxpayer dollars allocated to programs that are creating further degradation to ecosystems. For example, according to Imhoff, the bill incentivizes producers to drain aquifers, and “We have Flint Michigans everywhere,” he said. “In California there are so many polluted wells in the Central Valley [agricultural region]. They won’t be cleaned up for 50 years.” He also referred to what is sometimes called the “23andMe Provision,” a Farm Bill loophole that favors the largest farms and the richest producers with subsidies and extends to family members such as nephews, nieces and cousins.
Imhoff suggests that the Farm Bill’s $100 billion, invested in programs with a different vision, could be a huge lever for change.
Over the course of the panel, Imhoff and Sheingate emphasized that a tremendous perversion of the bill’s original intent has taken place. It is now used as a powerful weapon for political gain, and the safety net for 39 million food-insecure Americans has been put in jeopardy.
One topic that Sheingate addressed was the recent political fragmentation we’ve witnessed with regard to the Farm Bill: “There’s an increased struggle over what used to be non-controversial legislation.”
“In 2013 we saw something unprecedented. The Farm Bill lost on the floor of the House under Republican majority because the right-wing Republicans wouldn’t vote for it. That’s a change. In 2018, again the Farm Bill died in the House because the right wing of the Republican party wanted a vote on immigration.”
The role of SNAP, or food stamps, which was an original cornerstone of the bill, has come under Republican fire.
“We’ve seen a single-minded focus on reducing access to SNAP … The Farm Bill was built upon a political coalition dating back to the 1960s that married commodity subsidies to food stamps [SNAP] as a way of protecting subsidies from Democrats. But now Republicans are gunning for SNAP and that makes it very difficult to pass a farm bill,” said Sheingate.
“To what extent does that create an opening for change? Is there an opportunity for new coalitions?” asked Sheingate. “I’m not going to predict … But there is a fragility in the system that has not been there before.”
Imhoff likes the idea of a 50-year Farm Bill to replace the current model, which gets renegotiated and re-authorized every five years. “We need to be bold. The times are bold. We need to have some imagination, and a 50-year Farm Bill is an example of that. What if we had a 50-year plan to feed ourselves and not heat up the planet?”
The panelists agreed that the US Department of Agriculture needs to have a more “boots on the ground” approach, as well. “It’s very complex to manage agriculture from [Washington] DC without specific knowledge on the ground,” said Imhoff.
The book by Badaracco and Imhoff is titled, “The Farm Bill: A Citizen’s Guide,” and is available for purchase from Island Press. As Imhoff said, “Somebody has to be the popular translator for this bill.” Sheingate contended that the intent of the Farm Bill authors is to “make your head hurt and eyes glaze”—and that making the bill readable and accessible in a citizen’s guide is a powerful act.
Video of the event can be watched here.
Image by Mike Milli 2019.