Someone once said federal farm bills should be called food bills, because they affect all Americans, not just farmers. The present farm bill expires in 2007, so talk has already begun on where to go from here. Fundamental change is needed.
We need to loosen the corporate grip on agriculture and revamp the government's role. The present system has forced many farmers out of farming, ravaged the free market in food, encouraged an environmentally destructive agriculture and promoted cheap calories that feed our obesity epidemic.
The next farm bill should promote a freer, more local market in agriculture, sustainable, soil-saving farming and a safer supply of more healthful food. And we should not forget the need to ensure a nutritional safety net for millions of low-income Americans. Let's get our priorities straight. Here is a shopping list for the next farm bill:
• Progressively reduce excessive soybean and corn subsidies. These give factory confinement of chickens, hogs and cattle a cost advantage. Pasture production is better for animals and the environment, and results in more healthful food for consumers. And subsidy-driven corn production has given the food industry a cheap sweetener, high-fructose corn syrup, a tool to increase profits by pushing calories through supersizing at fast-food outlets.
• Expand conservation programs. Eighty percent of this money is now used to take land out of production and plant it with soil-saving vegetation, such as native grass. While this is a good idea, most of America's soil loss and water pollution are from working farms. More reward should go to active farmers who use the best environmental practices.
• Expand rural development programs that promote food that is locally grown, processed and marketed. We need more small dairies that bottle their own milk for local consumers, medium-scale meatpacking and farmers markets. If we cut the distance food travels to reach consumers — now an average of 1,400 miles — fossil fuel use would drop, our air would be cleaner and our food fresher. Increased crop diversity would result if local farms supplied more of the local diet. This would increase food security by decentralizing our food system, leaving it less vulnerable to large-scale disruption due to contamination, terrorism, disease and insect crop pests.
• Put free enterprise back into agriculture by updating existing anti-trust laws. Open to entrepreneurs the markets now dominated by the giants of food handling and processing that cut special deals with retailers. Huge meatpacker Tyson, for example, does this with Wal-Mart, effectively shutting out local meat producers.
• Redirect agricultural research at public universities toward development of more sustainable, environmentally friendly farm practices. Today's university research is too heavily influenced by the interests of corporations that supply farmers and process food.
• Embrace the idea that in a just society, no one should go hungry or malnourished. This means that, despite the pressure of federal budget deficits, we must provide ample support for school lunch programs and food stamps, which are funded by farm bills.
Every U.S. senator and representative will have a vote on the next farm bill, which will affect your land, your water, your community, your supermarket and the food on your plate. If this matters to you, give them an earful.
Paul D. Johnson is a northeast Kansas organic market gardener and a family-farm legislative advocate for several churches in Kansas. He wrote this for the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.