The Farm Bill - Why You Should Care?
It’s dad’s night to cook and my eldest daughter and I head to the local grocery store. Hamburgers it is (big surprise). We weave our way through the aisles in search of the miniscule cubby reserved for grass-fed meat. And there’s a pound of grass-fed chuck for $10. Our earth/animal friendly meat is stacked amongst of sea of industrial ground beef priced at approximately $3 per pound.
We grab a bottle of Annie’s Organic ketchup along the way for $5. All the ingredients are certified organic including cane sugar. The bottle of Heinz next to it is $3.
The cashier rings us up and I’m walking out and it hits me. It’s something I already know but it really hits. Like many people, I don’t mind paying more for organic and grass-fed foods. I want to feed my kids and myself the best food for many reasons and it’s an investment I am willing to make.
However, I’m not just paying exorbitant prices for my family’s food. I am also paying money to keep competitive, non-organic, hormone-ridden foods artificially cheap. I am paying McDonald’s, Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield’s and other companies to produce cheap food stripped of nutritional value --- food that is making America the most obese country in the world. I’m not just paying my family’s health insurance but I am also paying the health care costs for people with chronic disease like diabetes and heart disease that are a direct result from too much cheap food. I am paying for the clean up of waste run-offs from feedlots. I am lining the pockets of pharmaceutical companies – among the most profitable industries in the US – who are marketing drugs to our overweight and increasingly diseased country. I am complicit in this directly through the money I pay in taxes to the federal government.
The Farm Bill is one of the primary pieces of legislation that determines agricultural policy in the United States. It addresses a variety of subjects but most notably determines subsidies for commodity crops including corn, soybeans and wheat. Essentially, farmers over-produce these crops creating low prices. Food processors and industrial animal factories purchase products like feed grains at prices that are below the cost of production. The subsidies to farmers make up the difference between the price that food processors are willing to pay and what it actually costs to grow and harvest the crop. The real subsidy is (indirectly) to the food processors and the industrial animal operations that can subsequently afford to make their commercial product below its true cost and sell it cheaply and profitably.
That’s right. You and I, as taxpayers, are paying for the cheap production of high-fructose corn syrup that goes into ketchup (instead of sugar). You and I are paying for the competitive advantage that the bottle of Heinz has over the bottle of Annie’s.
The Farm Bill is re-debated every five to seven years by the congress. The current 2008 bill is set to expire September 30, 2012. Congress is set to hold public hearings starting this month.
It’s irresponsible to suggest that the problem is as simple as cutting subsidies. In fact, that was experimented with in 1996 and what ensued were $20 billion bailouts in 2002. That being said, it is completely possible to reform commodity programs to establish a fair market price floor so companies (NOT taxpayers) pay their fair share to farmers. The Farm Bill can also go a lot farther to support local and regional farming and reward farmers for producing healthier crops.
The fact that this new Farm Bill is set against a huge national election gives you, the consumer/voter, a great opportunity to have their voice heard. To learn more about the history of the Farm Bill, here’s a helpful site.
You can contact your congressperson and let them know you care about this issue. Here’s a handy resource for doing so.
By the way, dad scored passing marks on dinner. It’s hard to screw up a hamburger. Well, maybe it isn't.