In October 2008, Michael Pollan, a food writer and critic of American agriculture policy, wrote a letter in The New York Times Magazine addressed to the president-elect, whom everyone then assumed would be Barack Obama, on how to make our food more healthful. Obama wouldn’t win the election for another month, but the lithe, urbane candidate had earned a reputation for eating well on the campaign trail; he eschewed hot dogs for salmon, arugula, and Honest Tea. Food policy had not been at the forefront of the campaign, Pollan argued, but was key to a number of policy goals Obama had raised: “Unless you [reform the food system], you will not be able to make significant progress on the health care crisis, energy independence or climate change. Unlike food, these are issues you did campaign on—but as you try to address them you will quickly discover that the way we currently grow, process and eat food in America goes to the heart of all three problems and will have to change if we hope to solve them.”
Here was a president, yuppie foodies hoped, who would stop the inane practices that made meat so disgustingly cheap, that pumped cows—and consequently, us—full of hormones and antibiotics, and that encouraged farmers to either overproduce crops or leave lands needlessly fallow. Advocates hoped the 2012 farm-bill reauthorization would spur a big discussion that would end with an entirely reformed food policy.
Before the farm bill came up for reauthorization, advocates took heart in early signs that the administration was paying attention to food policy. Congress reauthorized the food-safety bill and the childhood-nutrition bill, which is responsible for the school-lunch program. Both pieces of legislation made small but sensible alterations to help provide kids with healthier school lunches and keep the food supply safe.
But once Republicans swept into office in 2010, they ensured that neither of these measures would be properly funded. Conservatives waylaid other Obama administration food-policy efforts, too. In the 2008 farm bill, Congress directed the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the meatpacking industry, to write new rules to protect small farmers from unfair treatment by the big companies they contract with. These rules would also clarify long-standing ambiguities in the law that courts had interpreted to favor agribusiness. George W. Bush did nothing with this directive as he finished out his term, but Obama’s secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, took this mandate seriously and arranged a set of meetings with farmers and meatpackers around the country to include their feedback in the new policy.
When the draft rules were issued last year, big meatpacking corporations raised such a fuss that the Republican-led Congress harangued the Department of Agriculture into revisiting them. A watered-down set of rules made its way back to the public, stripped of any of the new provisions for hog and cattle farmers meant to ensure fair pricing. The surviving rules are imperfect, though they protect small chicken farmers from large packers’ most egregious anti-competitive behaviors. These surviving rules were published in the federal register yesterday, just one day before a deadline imposed by Congress in the 2012 appropriations bill. That rushed deadline leaves unfinished business, according to Becky Ceartas of the Rural Advancement Foundation International, including protections to help chicken farmers challenge unfair corporate practices in court and to ensure they can get long enough contracts to recoup their upfront costs. “We are disappointed that Congress chose to use a back-door channel in the appropriations process to limit the USDA’s ability to more fully address unfair practices by poultry companies,” she says. “Protecting farmers’ rights and providing them the information needed to make sound business decisions can only strengthen the industry.”
All of these problems—the dearth of funding for Obama’s childhood-nutrition and food-safety bills, the hamstrung rules effort —could be solved by digging into the farm-bill reauthorization next year. Typically, only farm-state representatives and big-industry advocates have attended the farm-bill debate, but advocates like Pollan hoped more of the public, newly cognizant of how important the bill is in setting policy, would pay attention this round.
Perhaps anticipating the heightened scrutiny, Congress, led by Senator Debbie Stabenow, worked to avoid it. Instead of introducing the farm bill as a separate piece of legislation as is usually done, the House and Senate agriculture committees tried to surreptitiously tack on the thousand-plus-page legislation to a debt-reduction deal hammered out by the Super Committee, a small group of congressmen and Senators charged with reducing the federal deficit. “An irony of our lives at this point, when there are more and more members of the general public that are going to tune in to the farm bill for the first time because they’re tuned in to food issues, is that this process is derailed in this way,” Patty Lovera, an assistant director of the watch-dog group Food and Water Watch, says.
This secret farm bill was set to cut conservation money even more than appropriations bills have in the recent past and replace the direct payments to farmers, which both liberals and conservatives oppose, with a “shallow loss” program that would have insured farmers for up to 95 percent of their crops during price dips. But that program had a host of problems—it was rumored that industry representatives from different crops disagreed sharply on the nature of the program. From an environmental standpoint, says Craig Cox of the environmental working group, the program was likely to be worse than direct payments. For one thing, it probably wouldn’t have had preservation requirements attached to the funding the way some programs now do. None of the programs would have addressed the fundamental problem: Farmers are currently encouraged to overproduce excessively cheap grains, which creates a meat-heavy food system in which nearly everyone is worse off.
To the relief of most progressives, the Super Committee failed to come up with a deal, so the secret farm bill won’t pass without debate. But what kind of farm bill the conservative Congress will come up with is worth worry, regardless. Stabenow said in a recent Farm Journal forum that the early agreements reached in secret will likely form the basis for the farm bill when it’s introduced next year. At least the fight will happen in public. A deflated food-reform movement, in the meantime, has atrophied into a revitalized foodie movement. Local-food activism was always meant to be about knowing more about what’s on your table. If the coastal elite who care most about food policy already have access to local, organic, sustainable agriculture, they might not be as motivated to join calls for reforming agricultural policies for the whole country.