A lobbying perspective
For the last farm bill, Oxfam America - an antipoverty group - did a sort of indirect lobbying action. They “tapped into a grass-roots network around the country to raise awareness of the issue”. Oxfam paid for television ads, which ran in the nation’s capital and in targeted states, such as Minnesota - home to Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson.
In addition to the antipoverty and nonprofit groups that lobby for a reformed farm bill, the equally important smaller farmers also take time off to travel to Capitol Hill to make their voices heard.
This lobbying, although meant to help the nation, also has international affects. The current crop supply and food prices have a profound affect on food prices around the globe. Kym Anderson, Professor of Economics at Adelaide University reported that “an increase demand for grains to make bio-fuels as a replacement for oil had pushed up food prices internationally by 75 percent since 2005”. Change here often means unwanted change elsewhere.
This may seem like a contradiction, since some are concerned that the farm bill makes agricultural commodities so inexpensive, but the world’s poorest farmers can’t compete. On the other hand, other policies make food more expensive, and especially in cities, many of the world’s poorest people can’t afford to buy food.
Both are valid concerns, and we need to strike the right balance to address both concerns.
Change from the people’s eyes
Rep. Peterson continued his statement by saying, “One idea is to link subsidies more to swings in farm revenues as opposed to commodity prices. Let’s come up with the best risk management system that we can”. By coming up with a better risk management system to add to the next farm bill, we can finally move forward - instead of backwards.
Rep. Peterson believes that one way to move forward is by integrating the current subsidies with the crop insurance. He said, “in 20 years, crop insurance is likely to be the single way that the government subsidizes farmers. The concept of crop insurance is easier to sell to urban voters than the conventional subsidy programs”. Simplicity is the key to understanding. Making the system easier for the urban voters to understand also makes it easier on the farmers.
Non-profits all around the world help with making this change for famers and the American public. Reverend David Beckman, the President of Bread for World, believes “reforming the farm bill is Bread for World’s highest priority… we think [the farm bill is] the piece of legislation that will do more good for hungry people than anything else Congress is doing this year”. According to Beckman, U.S. overproduction drives down crop prices and hurts poor farmers in Africa and Latin America. Giving money to rich American farmers seems counter-productive; the farm bill does little for the poor here. It is also very hostile to anyone that believes in a free trade or the free market philosophy.
The farm bill’s power on the American food system does not begin to describe its full impact on the environment, on global poverty, or even on immigration. This bill makes it possible for American farmers to sell their crops overseas for significantly less than it actually costs to grow them overseas. The farm bill helps determine the price of corn in Mexico and the price of cotton in Nigeria, and therefore, whether farmers in those places will survive or be forced off the land.
In efforts to change the food system, legislators run into more problems. Michael Pollan, a bestselling author on food issues, believes that “in great and growing numbers, people are voting with their forks for a different sort of food system. But as powerful as the food consumer is–it was that consumer, after all, who built a $15 billion organic-food industry and more than doubled the number of farmer’s markets in the last few years–voting with our forks can advance reform only so far”.
It is a shame that such a change resulted in making the most unhealthful calories in the marketplace the only ones low-income families can afford. However, there are ways to overcome this dilemma, and we - as a nation - need to take them one step at a time.
Conclusion: a change needs to
by Jen Picariello, Hearts & Minds volunteer