U.S. Farm Bill is a Food Bill

by Don Bustos

originally published in the Green Fire Times, December 2011

Right now the 2012 Farm Bill, which I will refer to as the Food Bill, is under negotiation. Everyone that eats has a vested interest in the Food Bill. Why? Because you want to know where your food, your children’s and grandchildren’s food, comes from, and how it is grown. There have been years of discussion as to how the Food Bill impacts all of the citizens of the world, the U.S. in particular. The 2012 Food Bill is a hugely important piece of legislation, evidenced in part by its size: with a budget of $288 billion, the Food Bill is the second-largest budget item in the United States, second only to the Department of Defense. It is the mechanism used to shape food policy in this country.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the agency that manages all aspects of food production, food and nutrition programs, forestry, related research and education, as well as international trade policy. It also manages commodity programs, including the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), and the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Nutritional programs (including food stamps) take up 70% of the budget, or $188 billion. It is an omnibus bill that is passed every four years, though it sometimes takes longer, depending on Congress. The U.S. created its first form of a farm policy in the early 1930s to address job creation in the rural areas. New legislation was introduced in 1936-1938 to address over/under production and protect farmers.

The food bill has a large impact on what every person in this country—and many other consumers around the globe—eat. However, the bill is being decided by a select few. Several members of Congress have been appointed to the Agriculture Committee from key agriculture states. These states have large agriculture economies based on agri-business approaches, follow the philosophy of “larger is better,” and concentrate on large-scale food production for the purpose of efficiency. If a few senators and representatives with economic interests get to decide what we eat and how it is grown, it seems unlikely that the decisions made about our country’s food production will take our diets and health into consideration.

As our country continues to face a budget crisis, we as citizens, and even most of Congress, are less involved with the process this time around. The Super Committee for the Farm Bill was formed by the President and told to come up with over a trillion dollars of budget cuts. What has not been discussed is whether these cuts will be fair and equitable, and if the new bill will support our food production and distribution in a safe manner, creating food security for the nation.

We are now at crossroads in our food production strategy, and our decisions have an impact on a global level. Many agriculture leaders, government officials and big agribusiness corporations are supporting more advances in technology (meaning more chemical fertilizers, GMO plants, and “Roundup ready” crops) to feed the world’s growing population. At the same time, there is also a large voice for more sustainable agriculture programming, development and production.

At a recent National Food Policy conference, Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack said that our food production should be linked directly to nutrient density and support healthy diets. He went on to say that a local food system should be developed and sustained for food safety and food security. Most of the programs that have some impact on local and sustainable agriculture are under Title XIV Miscellaneous. Examples include Community Food Security grants, Beginning Farmer and Rancher grants, and Rural Development grants. Separate from Title XIV Miscellaneous but also at risk of being cut from the Natural Resource Conservation Service are an additional 13 programs that could have an impact on New Mexicans.

While there are no answers to the budget cuts for the Food Bill, there are ways to become involved in how Congress decides what kind of food is available to consumers, how nutritious, culturally appropriate and sustainable it is for the environment and economy. The appropriations for these sustainable, local, regional food systems is at risk for being cut out of the Food Bill entirely. They are such small budget numbers that decision makers feel their impact is minimal; yet we know that a local food supply is the safest, and often has the highest nutrition for us.

There are several national organizations that address farming issues through policy. I have been involved with four that have direct communication with New Mexico’s staff and politicians in D.C., as well as our national Agricultural Committee: the Rural Coalition (which works with underserved communities), the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the Land Stewardship Program, and the National Immigrant Farmers Initiative (NIFFI). This year they, along with other organizations, introduced an amendment, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Enhancement Act, which will expand on the existing program.

Our New Mexico senators and representatives have supported and continue to support sustainable agriculture in New Mexico. Senator Bingaman stood in support of the state’s acequias, and was instrumental in the development of the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, along with former Sen. Domenici. He now continues to support farmers by being a co-signer on the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Act. Senator Bingaman is always in support of policy that will protect and expand sustainable agriculture in New Mexico. Senator Udall has also supported sustainable agriculture and now has the opportunity, if he so chooses, to help develop urban agriculture.

If you want to have access to local sustainable food now and in the future, call your senators and congressmen. Though the work of national organizations is vitally important, your personal call has the most direct impact. Ask them to stop these budget cuts, and to protect the citizens of New Mexico by having a food bill that protects our food supply, environment, acequias, farmers and ranchers through sustainable farming systems.

Don Bustos owns Santa Cruz Farm, is the director of American Friends Service Committee of New Mexico, and is an Institute for Agriculture Trade Policy fellow. You can contact him at DBustos@afsc.org.