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Farm Bill

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The five farm bill amendments you should keep an eye on

The farm bill, a massive Gordian knot of legislation that rolls through Congress every five years or so, has rolled into Congress. Not recently, mind you, it's already been under discussion and in negotiation for a year. The bill touches nearly every aspect of America's food system -- and sucks in more than a few tangential issues as well. (If you're new to the bill and its details, our page of posts on the topic is the best place to start. NPR also has a good overview.)

Right now, the Senate is considering the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 (read: the farm bill, though ARFJA is also catchy). It left the Senate Agriculture committee and arrived on the Senate floor, where it was promptly peppered with over 90 amendments.

We went through and identified five of the 90 that are most worth paying attention to. If you have additions or questions, feel free to leave them in the comments; consider this a living document. As the bill progresses through the Senate and then the House -- perhaps even before the existing legislation expires at the end of September -- we'll track its evolution and likely impacts.

Read more: Farm Bill, Food, Politics

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Pushing for local food in the farm bill: An interview with Chellie Pingree

Rep. Chellie Pingree speaks with a young farmer.

Does local and organic food matter more to people in Maine than it does to other Americans? It's possible, but Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) insists that's not why she introduced the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act, a small but encouraging set of legislative reforms meant to accompany this year's farm bill.

And while the "marker bill" has yet to be embraced entirely, some parts of it have clearly influenced the Senate's draft of the larger farm bill, which is said to be about to hit the Senate floor this week. Most sustainable food advocates have seen it as a welcome push for small-scale agriculture, after decades of federal support for industrial farming.

We spoke with Pingree recently about bill, the work behind it, and her motivation to get a farm bill passed before the last one runs out in September.

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Celebrity chefs and food movement leaders tell Congress: ‘This farm bill stinks’

Wendell Berry, Dan Barber, Rick Bayless, and Mario Batali are among 70 food movement leaders who signed a letter asking Congress to invest in healthy food.

Mario Batali, Dan Barber, Rick Bayless, and Alice Waters have had it with our  food system. These well-known chefs -- along with a group of 70 food movement celebrities, including Michael Pollan, Will Allen, Laurie David, Robert Kenner, and Wendell Berry -- have set down their sauté pans for just long enough to sign onto a letter asking Congress to invest in healthy food.

It’s a timely statement by this star-powered group, as the Senate Agriculture Committee’s draft of the 2012 Farm Bill -- a package of federal farm and food legislation representing nearly a trillion dollars -- finally hit the Senate floor this week.

And they have a point. As we’ve reported in the past, the Senate draft probably won’t improve the big picture of the food landscape as-is. In the draft, farm conservation efforts and nutrition assistance both face deep cuts, while the industrial farm lobbies have ensured that the biggest commodity farms continue to rake in subsidy payments. (Don’t believe me? Take a look at this graphic, which ran with Sunday's New York Times op-ed on the subject. It shows that a full 76 percent of the subsidy dollars distributed between 1995 and 2010 went to a mere 10 percent of the nation’s farms.)

Signed, sealed, delivered

The letter signed by Batali, Waters, and co. was initiated by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and describes the Senate bill as “falling far short of the reforms needed to come to grips with the nation’s critical food and farming challenges.” The letter continues:

It is also seriously out of step with the nation’s priorities and what the American public expects and wants from our food and farm policy. In a national poll last year, 78 percent said making nutritious and healthy foods more affordable and accessible should be a top priority in the farm bill. Members of the U.S. Council of Mayors and the National League of Cities have both echoed this sentiment in recent statements calling for a healthy food and farm bill.

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Cartoon explains what’s wrong with our food system in under four minutes

OK, this is a pretty oversimplified depiction of the relationship between corporate interests, farmers, and consumers -- but that means it's a good starting point for anyone who isn't sure how subsidies for corn and soy led to a food system where processed crap is not only common but, for many people, inescapable. And it takes less than four minutes to watch!

Read more: Farm Bill, Food

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Americans want more fruits and veggies for everyone

Photo by Chiot's Run.

If you’ve noticed more carrot-crunching, more orange-peeling, and an abundance of leafy green salads lately, it’s probably not a coincidence. As The Washington Post reported earlier this week, Americans eat more fresh foods than they did five years ago.

The WaPo story was based on a national phone survey conducted by the Kellogg Foundation, which found that the majority of Americans are trying to eat more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, are shopping at farmers markets at least on occasion, and say they know “a lot or a little about where their fresh fruits and vegetables come from.” These findings are interesting -- and they speak to the success of a whole array of efforts to get more of us cooking, examining what we eat, and honing in on the place where healthy and truly delicious foods intersect.

Less visible in the media landscape is the fact that the Kellogg Foundation survey also suggests that all this healthy eating has Americans looking outside themselves.

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Politicians, advocates make an 11th-hour push for a better farm bill

Senator Debbie Stabenow, head of the Senate Ag Committee, has pledged to get a farm bill passed by September. (Photo by Lance Cheung for the USDA.)

Right now, the Farm Bill needs a hero, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow thinks she's up for the job. Despite serious setbacks, the Democrat from Michigan is confident she and the committee she chairs can work with the House committee to pass a new farm bill before the current one runs out in September.

And, while hearing Stabenow speak at a conference last week, I just about believed her. The senator has worked on a handful of farm bills before this one and she knows what it takes. But, as I mentioned in a recent post, she’s up against a formidable round of cuts. The Tea Party-driven House Agriculture Committee not only wants to cut $33 billion (compared to the Senate’s $23 billion), but they want to make most of those cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps).

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‘Weight of the Nation’ takes a realistic look at a looming crisis

HBO has a history of tackling serious American health-care crises. In recent years, the cable network has taken on addiction and Alzheimer's to much critical acclaim. And now the network has turned its attention to another huge health problem: obesity and its enormous economic, emotional, social, and health cost on individuals, families, communities, and the country at large.

As Americans have gained weight in recent years, rates of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other obesity-related health problems have also skyrocketed. Rates of Type 2 diabetes (once known as “adult-onset diabetes”) are soaring among kids. And this is a generation of people that may well die at a younger age than their parents, largely because of medical concerns associated with excess weight.

These facts have become commonplace to those of us who have been paying attention. Still, The Weight of the Nation: Confronting America's Obesity Epidemic serves as a clarion call to the country to take action -- and fast -- to combat this pernicious, complex problem that has myriad root causes.

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Will this Farm Bill do enough for young farmers?

Photo by Tracy Potter-Fins, taken at County Rail Farm.

By the time the next Farm Bill expires in five years, 125,000 American farmers will have retired. This fact may well be the biggest threat to national food security, but you wouldn’t know it if you’ve been following this year’s Farm Bill hearings.

Instead, the conversation is about “managing risk” for the Big Five commodity crops (i.e. crop insurance, subsidies, and margins for large agricultural interests) and not about the challenges to our food system as a whole. The recent House Committee on Agriculture’s Farm Bill “Field Hearings” were dominated by established farmers, with little if any time for new farmers to talk about their needs. Here in New York’s Hudson Valley, a group of beginning farmers considered a trip to the Saranac Lake to participate in one of these hearings, but decided against it when we learned that there would be no time to add our experiences to the chosen panelists. Beginning farmers like us didn’t fare much better in similar Senate hearings.

That’s why it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the needs of the next generation have yet to be met in the current draft of the Farm Bill, recently approved by the Senate Committee on Agriculture.

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Would you like a bad farm bill — or a terrible one?

Photo by Jeff Cushner.

The 2012 Farm Bill finally appears to be moving forward. Sort of.

On Friday, the Senate Agriculture Committee released their draft of the half-trillion-dollar bill. But not much has actually changed for the better since the behind-closed-doors "Secret Farm Bill" process from last fall. Ag Committee members are still planning deep cuts to crucial conservation funding that both keeps farmers from planting up every acre of available land and ensures that their farming techniques don't endanger clean water and air. Meanwhile, blustery boasts of eliminating farm subsidies are highly exaggerated: Last week, for example, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that "farm subsidy days are numbered." But as was decided last fall, the committee simply plans to shuffle the bulk of "direct payment" subsidy dollars over to crop insurance, where they will continue to prop up the "Big Five" commodity crops (corn, soy, wheat, rice, and cotton).

Shortly after the draft was released, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) put out a statement claiming the bill “will do more harm than good.” Here's more from EWG Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources Craig Cox:

It needlessly sacrifices conservation and feeding assistance programs to finance unlimited insurance subsidies and a new entitlement program for highly profitable farm businesses. Rather than simply ending the widely discredited direct payment program, the Senate Agriculture Committee has created an expensive new entitlement program that guarantees most of the income of farm businesses already enjoying record profits. Replacing direct payments with a revenue guarantee program is a cynical game of bait-and-switch that should be rejected by Congress.

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Farm Bill 2012: ‘It’s a mess, but it’s our mess’

Daniel Imhoff began writing about the farm bill before today’s so-called Good Food Movement took hold. In 2007, in an effort to make accessible the giant piece of legislation that touches on everything from food stamps to farm subsidies, Imhoff wrote Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill. Then last year (after editing the influential CAFO Reader), Imhoff revised the book just in time for Congress to craft the 2012 Farm Bill, which narrowly escaped getting passed behind closed doors last fall but is nonetheless shaping up to be “the worst ever.”

Imhoff spoke with Grist recently about democracy, debate, and the multiple ways the farm bill resembles the Olympic Games.

Q. What is the most important thing you hope your readers will get from this edition of Food Fight?

A. That the farm bill is a really great privilege and opportunity. It’s our chance as a democracy to try to make things better in the food system -- to help people get something to eat, to help farmers get through the season, and to try to help protect the land and the resource base.