The Farm Bill of 2018 may represent the single greatest opportunity to impact the health of the people and the environment of the United States. That's not an exaggeration, and it's not meant to be a flashy headline, it's the reality of the bill - and I sincerely hope that all people working on, lobbying for, and debating the Farm Bill understand that reality. It goes far beyond economics and politics, this bill can influence which foods are widely available, the relative prices of those foods, farming practices, the sustainability of our food supply, and the environmental impact that our agriculture will have.
Previous Farm Bills have provided funding for SNAP (food stamps), crop insurance for farmers, nutrition education programs, sustainability practices, and much more. In the past, images of starving children and concerns for feeding a growing population drove agricultural practices to become more efficient and specialized. This was the time to increase the yield per unit of land to provide more food for all. The Farm Bill has supported efforts to ramp up production while ensuring stable prices for farmers and a reliable food supply for consumers, including those without the ability to afford the food on their own. The agricultural community and especially farmers deserve acknowledgment and gratitude for achieving these goals with massive success and taking farming to a different level. Farmers are now able to produce much higher yields within a fixed amount of land.
We now face a much different situation. A lack of food or calories is no longer the primary concern that should drive agricultural policy; many people now consume far too many calories, some have estimated that up to 40% of food produced in the United States is wasted, and the Farm Bill actually pays farmers to not plant crops on productive land. Rather than continuing to focus on the quantity of food produced, the 2018 Farm Bill needs to change its focus to the quality of food produced. Astounding obesity rates, increasing diabetes and kidney disease, and skyrocketing healthcare costs are a few of the major problems that the Farm Bill could have a significant impact on. Additionally, the sustainability of our food production system and the approach to the SNAP program have tremendous potential for improvement. It's very important to take a step back and take a broad view of the farm bill and what the primary objectives are and what direction it needs to take. We must understand what the current issues and opportunities are, rather than just continuing with programs that address issues that have already been largely solved.
Current food production in the US is dominated by a small number of crops that include corn, soybeans, and wheat. The farm bill is incredibly complex, making it difficult to pinpoint any one program, but many have argued that the farm bill has been a significant contributing factor to the dominance of these crops. Here is the problem: corn, soybeans, and wheat predominantly enter the food supply as sugar, flour, and oil, which is the backbone of the highly processed junk food industry. Providing financial support with the farm bill to these crops results in artificially cheap junk foods. The price of foods will have a significant impact at the population level on the amount that is consumed. This is especially true for individuals in the lower socioeconomic classes that are not able to afford higher priced foods. Another common use for these foods, especially corn, is to feed cattle. This will also decrease the quality of meat that is produced compared to cows that graze on fresh pasture. The biggest improvement that can be made in the farm bill to increase the quality of the food supply is to support foods that are sold directly to consumers in a minimally processed form, and to stop providing support to foods that end up as highly processed junk foods. Also, support should not favor specific crops such as corn or soybeans while making it more difficult to obtain support to grow other vegetables, fruits, nuts, ect. Changes in this manner could have dramatic effects in terms of relative prices of minimally processed, whole foods compared to highly processed junk foods, which would have a profound impact on consumption trends at the population level. This could significantly improve the health of the population and slash health care costs. The highly debated "healthcare" bills that determine how healthcare is paid for and who is responsible for which costs are all set up for failure if we continue to have a sick population.
Another key concern that is receiving increased attention, and rightfully so, is the sustainability of our food supply. The farm bill seems to support or favor more industrialized monoculture farms. The most common of which is the 100+ acre fields of corn that cover the midwest. This type of intensive agriculture is highly dependent on petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fossil fuel-powered heavy machinery. Other issues such as soil erosion and loss of biodiversity are only worsened with this system. This type of agriculture came to dominate when the goal was to produce as many calories or obtain the biggest yield possible in a given space. This system may be the optimal when measured by output per unit of land, but it is misguided to ignore all of the other inputs and outputs in this system. Again, the production of maximal yield per unit of land was once a worthy goal and was necessary, but that is no longer the case. A much more important consideration is the sustainability of the food production system which considers the soil health, the impact on the biodiversity in the area, the impact on nearby rivers and water sources, the use of fossil fuels, and the quality of food that is produced.
In the current farm bill, the conservation reserve program (CRP) pays farmers to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and instead plant species that will improve environmental health. This same program framework could be used as a way for farmers to voluntarily convert their farms from intensive monoculture production to sustainable production systems that produce food and improve the environment at the same time. The ideal food production system is known as permaculture. In this system, the landscape is designed to mimic natural systems while favoring perennial plants with a large diversity of both plants and animals. Water harvesting and soil fertility are two major focuses of permaculture, both of which have never been needed more than now with increasing droughts and soil erosion throughout the country. One way to promote permaculture production systems is to have food assistance programs such as SNAP or Meals on Wheels partner with the farmers to essentially guarantee a market for any food that is produced. Another way to promote permaculture is through parts of the farm bill that are aimed at new farmers. Currently, programs are funded by the farm bill that provide education or assistance specifically for new farmers. These programs should only be funded by the farm bill if they are educating on permaculture systems. New farmers can learn the older monoculture system if they desire, but public funds should not support that at all. All new farmer education programs or resources should be reserved only for permaculture systems. Additionally, farmers that want to convert land that was not previously being used for agriculture should ONLY receive support from the farm bill if they are using a permaculture system.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) makes up by far the largest part of the farm bill's budget. Designed as a safety net program, many families throughout the country rely on it to purchase the food they need. It provides vital assistance to many people, but has tremendous room for improvement. "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." The current model for the SNAP program fosters dependence. It provides a handout to those in need. A better approach would be to encourage independence and self-sufficiency. This is certainly not an overnight or quick fix, but it is without a doubt the new direction that the program needs to start heading.
One major component of a SNAP improvement needs to engage participants in the food production process. City, county, state, and federal government should be actively involved in promoting community gardens, school gardens, backyard gardens, and especially urban gardens. All across the country the amount of unused land that lies barren is astounding. A program similar to the CRP program previously mentioned could be developed, a "Permaculture Production Program", where landowners enroll their land for 10-15 years to be developed into a permaculture system. Permaculture designers can lead teams of SNAP participants (and anybody else) to be trained and provided with first-hand experience on developing a permaculture garden. These permaculture gardens can then be used to produce healthy food for the SNAP participants in addition to the environmental benefits that come with the system. This would be especially helpful in "food deserts" that lack the traditional grocery stores or farmer's markets but are typically abundant in unused land. With the education and training from the program, the SNAP participants can replicate the permaculture garden in their own homes or continue to work with the Permaculture Production Program to develop more land. This type of SNAP program would empower individuals to grow their own healthy food, provide valuable skills and training to participants, and improve the environment at the same time.
Time to Act
The health of both the citizens and the environment of the United States have been steadily declining for a long time. Continuing to promote the same types of programs with the farm bill will ensure that the country continues down this miserable path. Significant change is needed. The underlying support doesn't have to disappear - supporting farmers with uncertain incomes, helping individuals access the food they need but are unable to obtain on their own; but it is imperative that the methods of achieving these goals change. Rather than a SNAP program that fosters dependence by relying on handouts, aim for a program that empowers participants to be involved in the production of their own healthy food while learning valuable skills and helping to improve the environment at the same time. Rather than supporting industrialized chemical-based agriculture that depletes topsoil, decreases the quality of our water supply, decreases biodiversity, and results in cheap junk foods, support diversified permaculture farms that improve the quality of the soil, air, and water, increase biodiversity, and result in healthy food being the most affordable option. No single change will have a bigger impact on the health of the people and the environment of the US. That is what is at stake with the farm bill, let's make it count!
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