If the USDA wants us to “eat healthy” by filling up half of our plates with fruits and vegetables, then why does the Senate’s proposed version of the 2012 Farm Bill continue to pour so many taxpayer dollars into programs that benefit farms that grow the crops so widely used in processed foods that some nutritionists say aren’t good for us.
This seemingly simple question is at the heart of a June 4 open letter to all members of Congress. Initiated by Environmental Working Group’s senior food and agriculture analyst Kari Hamerschlag, with authors Anna Lappé and Dan Imhoff, the letter was signed by more than 70 people, including leading authors, doctors, farmers, chefs, food businesses, environmental and healthy food advocates.
Kari Hamerschlag, senior food and agriculture analyst for EWG, told Food Safety News.com that outside of the food stamp program, now referred to as the SNAP Program, the lion’s share of the Farm Bill funding still goes to a handful of commodity crops (corn, rice, soybeans, cotton, wheat) that she said “provides the raw material for junk food, animal feed and fuel for our tanks.
“The letter urges Congress to reform the Farm Bill by standing up for “a healthy food and farm bill.” “Unfortuantely, the Senate bill falls far short of the reforms needed to come to grips with the nation’s critical food and farming challenges,” says the EWG letter. “It is also seriously out of step with the nation’s priorities and what the American public expects and wants from our food and farming policy.”
The letter refers to a national poll conducted last July that revealed that 78 percent of the respondents said that making nutritious and healthy foods more affordable and accessible should be a top priority in the Farm Bill.
EWG’s Hamerschlag said that from 2008-2010, the Farm Bill spent $39.4 billion — more than eight times the amount of money on commodity crops than it spent on specialty crops (vegetables, fruits and nuts) — even though their market value, $320 billion, was only twice that of fruits, nuts and vegetables.
“Fruit and vegetable growers have historically been left out of agriculture policy, even though they provide foods that are vital for improving America¹s nutrition and reducing the costly toll of diet-related diseases,” she said, adding that in the 2008 Farm Bill, there were some “modest” gains, but not enough gains, for specialty-crop farms.
With just $100 million a year currently going to local food production and promotion programs, Hamerschlag said that EWG wants to see more money going into programs that willl increase access to local, healthy, fresh and sustainable food.Referring to nutritional food safety, Hamerschlag said that the failure to invest in healthy foods has serious consequences for our nation¹s health-care costs and the millions of consumers who lack access to affordable fruits and vegetables.
The United Fresh Produce Association, meanwhile, gave the Senate a thumbs-up for moving forward on the Farm Bill.In a statement, United Fresh CEO and president Tom Stenzel said that the fruit and vegetable industry “strongly supports” the bill brought forward by the Senate Agriculture Committee.”We encourage the Senate to move quickly on the Farm Bill and pass a bill that encompasses the committee’s bipartisan agreements that are critical to the fruit and vegetable industry and all specialty-crop producers he said. FSN’s calls to United Fresh to find out if it would be working to make changes to the proposed bill were not immediately returned
A farmer’s perspective
Tom Willey, co-owner of T & D Willey Farms in the fertile San Joaquin Valley in central California, told Food Safety News.com that he signed the EWG letter because the Farm Bill is not dealing with the major “food issues” that the nation needs to be addressing.
“The Farm Bill is really playing with splinters and ignoring the beam in the eye of agriculture,” he said, referring to industrialized ag. “It subsidizes highly processed foods — the foods that are killing us. That’s what the Farm Bill is about.”
Examples of highly processed foods are fast-food items high in fat and sugar content. .Willey said the nation will never be able to deal with the current health crisis until it deals with the food crisis facing the nation, which he describes as “not eating enough fresh basic foods.”
He believes the Farm Bill should be called the Food Bill so that people will realize that it can be used as an important tool to help change the eating habits of Americans.”So we can deal with the health crisis,” he said, referring to health problems such as obesity and diabetes, which can be caused by eating large quantities of processed foods high in sugars and fats.
But as it is now, he said, the Farm Bill is owned and operated and manipulated by what he refers to as “the industrial-food cabal.” “We tinker with the edges, but the muscle of the Farm Bill is still dedicated to industrial ag,” he said. “It’s discouraging — very discouraging.”
He laments that too much agricultural research is being funded by “corporate giants” like Monsanto. And while he’s quick to say that he doesn’t want subsidies, he does want to see policies directed toward providing family farmers like himself with a level playing field.
“Unfortuanately, the Farm Bill subsidizes unhealthy foods that compete with my farm’s healthy foods,” he said. “It makes it easier for people to eat unhealthy food.”
An organic farmer, whose 75-acre farm grows produce year round, Willey said that the success that organic farmers like himself have realized by using natural biological methods instead of toxic chemicals to grow high-yielding nutritious crops has proven to be a vanguard for all farmers.
“We need to move all of agriculture in that direction,” he said. “It shows the potential that we need to develop: farmers growing healthy food for people. That’s what the Farm Bill should be about.”
For some food-safety advocates, there’s not a lot to cheer about in the Senate version of the Farm Bill.”We are disappointed that the Farm Bill doesn’t take more strides to fix the USDA’s outdated food-safety laws or remedy some of the weaker provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act, Colin O’Neil Regulatory Policy Analyst for the Center For Food Safety told Food Safety News, referring to the “the poor timeframe for inspections for high-risk facilities” as an example.
Even so, he said that the Center is heartened to see an amendment introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-VT, that seeks to increase the criminal penalties for knowingly shipping tainted food and would allow federal prosecutors to seek up to a ten-year jail sentence for doing that.
The Center also supports an amendment from Senators Bernie Sanders I-VT, and Barbara Boxer, D-CA, that clarifies the existing authority that states have to require the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods.
“Absent clear labeling of GE foods, consumers are deprived of necessary and important information about the foods they are purchasing,” said O’Neil, pointing out that dozens of U.S. states have introduced legislation and many are currently considering bills that would require the labeling of GE foods.
Food-safety attorney Bill Marler (publisher of Food Safety News), said that although he supports. Sen. Leahy’s amendment, until prosecutors around the country start enforcing the laws, adding more legislation means little to the victims and the families of food-poisoning victims.
“Industry and consumers should support each other and demand that reasonable, timely inspections are the norm, not the exception,” said Marler. “Ultimately, you get what you pay for, and right now food- poisoning incidents cost this county over $100 billion a year in losses to consumers and businesses. No one should think the status quo is acceptable.”
What about organics?
On the organic front, the Center for Food Safety’s O’Neil said that the Senate Farm Bill doesn’t address concerns that organic producers have regarding risk-management tools.
For, example, the USDA charges what he refers to as “an unjustified” 5 percent surcharge to most organic farmers who participate in the federal crop-insurance program and does not pay all organic farmers the organic price after a loss. (The organic price is typically higher than the non-organic price.)
In addition, said O’Neil, the USDA does not provide adequate risk-management tools for farmers — organic or conventional — who have diversified farming operations.But to its credit, he said, the Farm Bill does include some important improvements to USDA’s Adjusted Gross Revenue and AGR-Lite programs to provide greater “whole farm” risk for diversified farms.
With mounting pressure to cut spending in the 2012 Farm Bill, EWG’s Hamerschlag said that lawmakers must ensure that some of the resources saved by cutting wasteful commodity and crop-insurance subsidy programs be directed towards research, marketing and procurement programs to increase consumption of healthy and sustainable food.
And EWG’s letter offers a possible solution that could be incorporated into the 2012 Farm Bill. Pointing out that the Government Accountability Office has identified modest reforms to crop insurance subsidies that could save as much as $2 billion a year, the letter says that Congress should use these savings to provide full funding for conservation and nutrition assistance programs and strengthen initiatives that support local and healthy food, organic agriculture, and beginning and disadvantaged farmers.
According to the letter, these investments could save billions in the long run by protecting valuable water and soil resources, creating jobs and supporting foods necessary for a healthy and balanced diet.
2012 Farm Bill
Like other Farm Bills before it, the Senate’s proposed 2012 Farm Bill is designed to steer the next 5 years of national food and agriculture policy. Congress is hoping to get a new Farm Bill approved by September, if not sooner.
What’s different about this version of the Farm Bill is that it calls for a range of cuts to the longstanding taxpayer subsidies that have typically gone to the big five crops — corn, soybeans, rice, wheat and cotton.The Senate version adds up to about $969 billion over the next 10 years, but cuts overall spending by $23 billion.
The cuts are primarily directed at eliminating direct payments to farm landowners, which come to about $5 billion a year. At the same time, it also cuts about $4.5 billion over 10 years out of the food stamp program.
While the Obama Administration said it supports the 2012 Farm Bill, it also said it had wanted to see deeper cuts to the farm programs and opposed cuts to the food stamp program.
The bill’s provisions include one that would ax direct payments to farmers and make expanded crop insurance program the main safety net for farmers.As it is now, the government pays about two-thirds of the cost of farmers’ insurance programs, which comes to about $7 billion a year.
This program lets farmers buy insurance that covers poor yields, declines in prices, or both.Instead of these direct payments, the bill would replace them with a crop-insurance subsidy — at a cost of $3 billion a year — that would cover any losses farmers suffer (known as “deductibles”) before their crop insurance policies kick in.
Sen. Stabenow, D-MI, , who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the new insurance program is fair to all crop producers.
According to a study released in early June by the Environmental Working Group, using the Freedom of Information Act to gather the information, more than 10,000 individual farming operations in 2011 received federal crop- insurance premium subsidies ranging from $100,000 to more than $1 million apiece. Some 26 farming operations received subsidies of $1 million or more last year.
Senator Tom Coburn, R-OK, and Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-IL, teamed up to introduce an amendment that would put income limits on crop insurance subsidies.
With an eye on making sure families don’t go hungry, Sen Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, introduced an amendment that would restore the $4.5 billion in cuts to nutrition programs by making cuts to the financing of crop insurance.
This would be achieved by lowering the cap on payments made directly to crop-insurance companies for servicing and selling policies by $825 million per year — from $1.3 billion.
And while a hefty 68 percent percent of the 2008 Farm Bill dollars covered nutrition programs, Michele Simon, a public health lawyer, says that no one’s keeping track of what people are buying with food stamps because the USDA doesn’t require retailers to report that sort of information.
And although there have been efforts to change that, none have succeeded so far. In other words, are food stamps actually helping people buy healthy food?
According to the USDA, taxpayers spent $71.8 billion on food-stamp benefits in 2011.
During the first official hearing in late May on the 2012 Farm Bill before the Senate Agriculture Committee, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that “It’s no secret that cuts are inevitable and the 2012 Farm Bill will be smaller than the 2008 version”
In a June 14 interview with Brownfield Ag News, Vilsack also pointed to agricultural research as a part of the Farm Bill that “still needs a little work” but that the agency remains “excited about the prospects of being able to leverage ag research.”
“We know that every dollar we invest in research has a $20 return on investment and so it’s important that we continue to support ag research,” he said.
Why do we need a Farm Bill anyway?
Think floods, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes, hail, killing frosts, withering heat waves, pests, plant diseases, poor yields and plunging prices, and you quickly realize that year in and year out, farming is a huge gamble, said Judy Olson, Washington State Executive Director of the USDA Farm Service Agency.
That’s where providing farmers with a safety net comes into the picture.
“It helps level out the big bumps,” Olson said, referring to the array of totally unexpected calamities farmers can face.
“The safety net acts as a buffer so one bad year doesn’t put a farmer out of business.Now, as a consumer, imagine what food prices would like if there were no safety net to tide farmers over in tough times and allow them to stay in business.”We would see a roller coaster of prices,” Olson said.
The safety net also has a lot to do with food safety, Olson said, pointing out that if the U.S. didn’t have a stable farming base, U.S. consumers would have to depend more on imports, as is the case in countries where farmers don’t have a safety net.Olson contrasted the degree of confidence that U.S. consumers have in the safety of their food supply with countries where that isn’t the case.
“When people travel internationally, the biggest concern is ‘can I eat the food and drink the water,’” she said. “We don’t have those concerns in this country.”Olson also pointed out that thanks to the relative stability of U.S. agriculture as a whole, consumers spend a very small proportion of their money on food, compared to people in many other countries. That, in turn, she said, gives U.S. consumers the money to go on vacations, hook up to the Internet, and buy smart phones, for example. And that spending power ripples through the entire economy.
Bottomline, said Olson, the benefits that U.S. agriculture provides for this nation’s consumers is all the more remarkable when looking at how few farmers there are in this country in comparison to the population as a whole.”We are all dependent on less than two percent of the population for a reliable food supply,” she said.
To learn more about farm programs offered by USDA’s Farm Service Agency, go here and click on specific programs on the left-hand side of the page.© Food Safety News