We’ve all noticed higher grocery bills, but did you know Congress passed a $307 billion farm bill in late May that has a much bigger impact on what you will eat for dinner tonight than what you chose to place in the grocery cart?

The farm bill has a hand in all that happens before the swallow. The bag of Tyson chicken wings (grain subsidies), gallon of Horizon Organic milk (forward contracting), and pound of Fuji apples (country of origin labeling) are all regulated in some fashion by this policy determining how our food is raised and who profits.

But does the massive legislation support family farmers? Increase food access in urban food deserts? Or feed the 40 million poor and hungry in the United States?

Yes and no.

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Reauthorized and revamped every five years, farm law has its roots in the 1930s New Deal efforts to handle the overproduction of agricultural commodities while maintaining stable prices. Although most of the money in the current bill, around 75 percent, goes to nutrition programs such as food stamps, the politics of writing the bill is still driven by commodities such as corn, rice, wheat, cotton, and soybeans.

One way to interpret farm policy is to follow the money. According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Cargill’s profits increased nearly 1,000 percent from $280 million in FY 1997-98 to $2.34 billion by FY 2006-07. Add to that pile of profits the $35 billion in indirect subsidies that the industrial animal factories (owned and controlled by corporations like Cargill) reaped by being able to buy feed crops at 20-25 percent below the cost of production.

Farm-bloc legislators were challenged this time around to make the connection between the current farm policy’s cheap-corn complex and the growing problem of diabetes and obesity. Unfortunately, prior policy plunders were not weeded out of the current farm bill. As the House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) explicitly stated, except for some “minor changes,” the new farm bill is “very much like the current law that we have been operating under.”

For those farm bill pugilists — sustainable agriculture groups, anti-hunger advocates, faith-based organizations, conservationists, community gardeners, and grassroots family farmer coalitions — that tried to have their voices heard above the industrial agriculture cacophony, the final 2008 farm bill is bittersweet.

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Bitter due to the numerous multifunctional reforms that never came to fruition while corporate agribusiness deepened their roots, and sweet for the minor victories for sustainable agriculture, nutrition, and conservation.

The policies that survived through countless revisions, late-night conferences, numerous listening sessions, lobbyist wrangling, and earmarks are far from the wish lists various groups envisioned. However, more than one thousand food and farm organizations came together and requested that Congress override the president’s promised veto. As stated in their joint letter to Congress:

Communities across the nation, from urban to rural, have waited too long for this legislation. The Conference Report makes significant farm policy reforms, protects the safety net for all of America’s food producers, addresses important infrastructure needs for specialty crops, increases funding to feed our nation’s poor, and enhances support for important conservation initiatives. This is by no means a perfect piece of legislation, and none of our organizations achieved everything we had individually requested. However, it is a carefully balanced compromise of policy priorities that has broad support among organizations representing the nation’s agriculture, conservation, and nutrition interests.

Passing through the House with a margin of 306 to 110 and the Senate 82 to 13, the votes in both chambers were far past the majority needed to defeat President Bush’s veto. Formally called the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, the 673 pages of legislative prowess represent a precarious balancing act of principles and politics.

Below are samples of positive seeds of change planted in the new farm bill:

  • Community food projects and geographic preferences: The new farm bill provides $5 million in mandatory annual funding for innovative Community Food Projects for matching grants to community groups building sustainable local food systems addressing hunger, nutrition, and meeting food security goals. There is also new statutory language clearly stating that preference can be given to local purchasing of agriculture products for schools serving meals that receive federal assistance, resolving a conflict in USDA’s interpretation of the 2002 farm bill.
  • Local food initiatives: Another provision provides funding for new local and regional food supply networks including $33 million in mandatory funds for the Farmers Market Promotion Program, $56 million for the Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program, and $1.2 billion to expand the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program that will enable 3 million low income children across the country to have access to healthier food options.
  • GMO oversight: New mandates to strengthen USDA oversight of GMO crops will help prevent the disaster that occurred when an unauthorized genetically modified rice strain entered the U.S. rice crop and caused massive losses to export markets. The new regulatory framework will reduce the potential for future GMO contamination events at field trial test sites.
  • First-ever livestock title: Provides much needed protections for independent ranchers and farmers raising livestock under contract, which includes preventing mandatory arbitration clauses for livestock/poultry contracts, allowing a three-day period to cancel contracts, and requiring contracts to disclose the requirement of large capital investments.
  • Diversity initiative: The farm bill gives significant recognition to the importance of minority and socially disadvantaged farmers. There are specific targets for minority and socially disadvantaged farmer participation in conservation, farm credit, Value Added Producer Grants, and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Programs. Minority Outreach and Education (Section 2501) authorized in the 1990 farm bill receives for the first time mandatory funding at $75 million over four years. This competitive grant program to community-based organizations and educational institutions helps minority and socially disadvantaged farmers access USDA programs through effective outreach programs.
  • Beginning farmer and rancher development program: Provides $75 million over four years in mandatory money for competitive grants to groups providing technical assistance and other services to beginning farmers and ranchers. This program was created in the 2002 farm bill but was never funded.
  • Country-of-origin labeling (COOL) and interstate meat shipment: The farm bill includes language to implement long-awaited COOL requirements for produce, beef, pork, chicken, lamb, and goat that will go into effect in September 2008. COOL was included in the 2002 farm bill, but food industry, USDA, and meat packers’ opposition have delayed its implementation. There are also provisions allowing for the interstate shipment of state-inspected beef that meets federal inspection standards. Both of these policies represent victories for consumers and farmers aiming to rebuild local food systems.
  • Organic agriculture: The bill provides $78 million in mandatory funds for the Organic Research and Extension Initiative, which enhances the ability of organic producers and processors to grow and market organic food, feed, and fiber. For those transitioning to organic production, $22 million in mandatory funding is provided for the next five years.

The above positive provisions represent alternatives to the current food system without replacing the industrial model, which will take even more advocacy for good food policy in the next farm bill and beyond.

On one of my farm bill lobby visits to Washington, D.C., I spoke to several congressional offices advocating for fair prices on behalf of family farmers. After one of my meetings, a young amiable congressional staffer told me, with a mix of pity and arrogance, “We aren’t looking to revolutionize the food system, Deb, let alone the farm bill.”

Well, I am looking to revolutionize the food system, and I am not alone. Yes, we have an uphill battle. Biotech giant Monsanto Co. spent nearly $1.3 million in just the first quarter of 2008 to lobby on farm bill provisions to protect their investments, but there are thousands of grassroots organizations working for public policy that will protect and strengthen the future of our food supply, environment, public health, and communities.

I’m on the front line of this food revolution as a beginning organic farmer and food justice advocate. Will this farm bill help me with the infrastructure I need to process my chickens? Or provide me with the confidence that my sustainably raised food will be price competitive so that all people with empty and deep pockets alike have access to good, fair, and affordable food?

I’ll let you know in five years, but in the meantime, I’ll keep planting those seeds of change and hope you’ll join me in cultivating more palatable food policy.