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Does the farm bill care more about big business than people?

June 14, 2012|By Alexandra Le Tellier
  • A customer shops for nectarines at a farmers market in San Francisco. The U.S. Senate has started to debate the new five-year, half-trillion-dollar farm and food bill.
A customer shops for nectarines at a farmers market in San Francisco. The… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)

The controversial 2012 farm bill has sparked several debates among opinionators in the last week, all in the hopes of having their message heard as the bill's amendments "drag on" in the Senate. The proposed bipartisan bill, which NPR's Scott Neuman describes as "an all-encompassing piece of legislation comprising everything from farm subsidies and crop insurance -- which have an indirect impact on food prices -- to energy, forestry, food stamps and school lunches," would cut close to $24 billion from the program over the next 10 years. And though $969 billion is no small amount, should any of those cuts come at the expense of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps?

It's true that the majority of the farm bill money goes to SNAP. Still, "such a cutback in food benefits for struggling families and children is unconscionable in a bill containing plenty of unnecessary giveaways for corporate farming interests," writes the New York Times editorial board.

Beyond cutting funds to the food stamp program, there's also an argument for placing more restrictions on what SNAP money can pay for. "Just as health and anti-obesity advocates are working to bring agricultural policy in line with health policy by getting the farm bill to promote production of healthier foods, they also are looking at ways to encourage SNAP recipients to make healthier food choices," writes Marion Neslte of Food Politics. Of course, the makers of inexpensive junk food would hate to see that happen and have the power to be much more persuasive than, say, small farmers.

The health concerns go way beyond SNAP, of course. "Most of the money that doesn’t go toward food assistance programs ends up in the pockets of those producing commodity crops, or as Michael Pollan calls them, 'building blocks of fast food,'" explains Grist. In a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, Dan Imhoff and Michael Dimock argue that "crop subsidies and federal insurance should be aimed at the foods humans should eat. Currently, the lion's share of subsidies goes to commodity crops used to feed livestock or to produce ethanol or overly processed foods."

What's just as offensive about crop subsidies? This "crop insurance on steroids" comes at taxpayers' expense, which the Washington Post's editorial board argued "is neither morally nor economically justifiable, especially at a time when agriculture is financially stronger than ever."

But that’s for another post. Back to how all of this impacts the health of Americans.

"Although the committee proposal includes important reforms to the commodity title, we are deeply concerned that it would continue to give away subsidies worth tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to the largest commodity crop growers, insurance companies, and agribusinesses even as it drastically underfunds programs to promote the health and food security of all Americans, invest in beginning and disadvantaged farmers, revitalize local food economies and protect natural resources," wrote Kari Hamerschlag, a senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group, along with authors Anna Lappé and Imhoff, in an open letter also signed by food celebrities. They continue:

"Most of the benefits from these programs would flow to the producers of five big commodity crops (corn, soy, cotton, rice and wheat). Meanwhile, millions of consumers lack access to affordable fruits and vegetables, with the result that the diets of fewer than five percent of adults meet the USDA's daily nutrition guidelines. Partly as a result, one in three young people is expected to develop diabetes and the diet-related health care costs of diabetes, cancer, coronary heart disease and stroke are rising precipitously, reaching an estimated $70 billion a year."

That's not to say there hasn’t been some praise for the bill. Nestle points out that the bill "expands farmers' market promotion to include local food: ‘domestic farmers’ markets, roadside stands, community-supported agriculture programs, agritourism activities, and other direct producer-to-consumer market opportunities; and local and regional food enterprises that are not direct producer-to-consumer markets but process, distribute, aggregate, store, and market locally or regionally produced food products.'"

On the flip side, it also "adds popcorn to covered commodities." Which, I know, is considered the "perfect snack food," but still, c'mon.

How much of a role should the farm bill have in the health of Americans? Considering the decrease in fruit and vegetable consumption as the obesity epidemic rises along with medical costs, a lot. Then again, I'm in favor of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s sugary drink ban and the move against subsidizing sugar.

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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier. Follow Opinion L.A. on Twitter and Facebook.

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