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Eyes on the Farm Bill!

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Few pieces of federal legislation merit as much and receive as little attention as the Farm Bill. Most people who slog through this five-hundred-page-document are stunned by its breadth and complexity. Its many provisions deal with the production of a vast range of food commodities, some well-known (cotton, feed corn, beef, and dairy) and others more obscure (mung beans, sorghum, oilseeds, and hemp). It also covers agricultural research and rural development (including housing, water treatment systems, and broadband); farm credit, trade, and insurance; meat inspection, forestry, and horticulture; and nutrition—notably the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

The Farm Bill is, in other words, about far more than farming. While it is primarily targeted at people engaged in agriculture, who make up less than 2 percent of the working population today, it effectively determines what, how, and how much the rest of us eat. At present its budget is roughly $140 billion a year, over 80 percent of which goes to SNAP and other programs directed at alleviating food insecurity, which affects over forty million Americans. But it also provides financial incentives for growing specific crops. Popular portrayals aside, farmers are not particularly romantic about their occupation; they decide what to produce based on what makes economic sense.

For some time now the answer has been corn. What Michael Pollan once called a “river of commodity corn” washes through the food system in part because of federal policies that incentivize maximal production and cover farmers for losses from bad weather or dips in commodity prices. All that corn (and, to some extent, soybeans) enables industrial-scale meat production that, among its many ecological harms, contaminates drinking water sources and emits enormous quantities of methane. Overconsumption of cheap meat has also contributed to the surge in diet-linked diseases, with their attendant health care costs. Some 40 percent of the corn crop, meanwhile, goes to meet congressional mandates on ethanol in gasoline, thereby furthering soil erosion and groundwater depletion. Corn ethanol is bad energy policy, and even worse food policy.

Continue reading at The New York Review.

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