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Food, feed, and fiber ... and now fuel

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March 1, 2010

Don Merrick, NW VEG co-founder

Food, feed, fiber, and fuel is a bumper sticker description of one of the larger and more complex acts of legislation emerging from the U.S. Congress. Why is the farm bill important to vegetarians? Among many concerns, food costs more for those who choose not to consume animal products because agribusinesses producing animal products with chemically intensive and resource intensive practices are generously subsidized. Those who produce edible plants using sustainable practices are modestly subsidized, if at all. To be fair, there is a pittance for organic agriculture, farmers' markets, and community-supported agriculture. Vegetarians tend to care for the welfare of animals and future generations. The farm bill addresses animal welfare only in the context of a profitable commodity. It assigns little importance to the rapid depletion of natural resources used for conventional agriculture, predominantly water and fossil fuel.

Other than food assistance programs, the farm bill is mostly about industrial agriculture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides oversight and taxpayer funding for this highly volatile business sector. Although the farm bill has been around since 1933 with the purpose of assisting distressed, depression-era farmers, it has grown over the decades to assist much more than farmers. Consider the recent release of the proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2011. The USDA portion of the budget was sent to Congress after being cut from the USDA request of $149 billion to $132 billion, and much of this cut was associated with price supports for commodity crops and conservation programs designed to mitigate past land and water abuses.

It has upset large agribusiness and those advocating conservation practices, but agribusinesses will prevail, as they always do, while they continue to lavishly fund the campaigns of legislators on agricultural committees. Of course, the farm bill is much more than commodity subsidies and conservation. It also includes trade, foreign food aid, food stamps and other food assistance programs such as school lunches, forestry, and many other concerns for small communities and rural areas.

How will the future of the farm bill unfold? First, it's important to visit the bumper sticker. Food means the plants and animals that humans eat. Feed refers to grain, mostly genetically engineered corn and soy fed to livestock. Complicating this picture is the ever-increasing use of corn to produce ethanol for transportation fuel. Producing conventional grains is grossly unsustainable, requiring largely disproportionate quantities of water and fossil fuel. The solution is to eat less livestock, or none at all, and use electric vehicles powered by renewable resources such as solar and wind. Fiber refers to wool and cotton which is of little relevance now that we have driven almost all textile manufacturing to foreign countries.

Though there are annual appropriations to USDA as with other federal agencies, the farm bill takes an additional legislative path. Every five years, Congress deliberates over an omnibus farm bill to cover the next five-year period. Five years is tactically chosen to alternate between an election year and a non-election year. The last omnibus farm bill was taken up in 2007 but was so contentious that it wasn't enacted till June, 2008. The next omnibus farm bill will be taken up in 2012, and the promising trend is lowered commodity subsidies and increased conservation.

There are many reasons to be optimistic for the future of the farm bill. Here are three: First, the second in command at the USDA is Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. Ms. Merrigan is the very first top-tier official at the USDA to come from the sustainable agricultural community. She is influencing the continuance of the exponential growth of organic agriculture, the only practice that will wean us off our chemical- and resource-intensive path. The second reason is the persistence of people and grass roots organizations to demand healthy food, especially for our children, who are easily influenced by peer pressure and junk food advertising. Parents are pushing hard for school lunch programs that avoid saturated fats, refined grains, and excess sugar. And thirdly, food expert Marion Nestle states, "Mrs. Obama's White House garden is enormously inspiring." Michelle's south lawn garden is influencing the nation, predominantly youth, showing that growing and eating vegetables is cool. In February, Mrs. Obama addressed the obesity epidemic in America, encouraging people to eat less refined foods and smaller quantities overall. Now she needs to put back in place the White House solar panels that were removed by Ronald Reagan the day after he moved in.

Author Daniel Imhoff has written an easy-to-read and inspirational book on this subject titled Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide To A Food And Farm Bill. In this 2007 book, Michael Pollan provides a thought-provoking foreword, and the author adds helpful ideas, many additional resources, and a selected biography.

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