The best explanation of what’s happening with the long-delayed 2012 farm bill comes from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. In September, it produced a still very much relevant Q and Aon the topic. The 2008 farm bill expired without being renewed. If Congress does not act soon, farm policy will be in big trouble. Here are some brief excerpts:
What is the relationship between the farm bill and the automatic budget cuts scheduled for January 1? The new farm bill, when and if it becomes law, will cut more spending from farm bill programs overall, on a net basis, than the automatic budget cuts scheduled to begin on January 1 under the requirements of the Budget Control Act of 2011…Whether Congress postpones the start date for automatic cuts or in other ways amends the Budget Control Act when it returns to DC after the elections is one of the biggest issues hanging over the lame duck session.
What are the farm bill choices that Congress has during the lame duck session? There are two theories about what happens next. In one, the House returns after the elections and finally brings its bill to the floor, passes the bill with amendments, the House and Senate versions then get reconciled in a farm bill “conference” committee, and a melded final bill is…sent to the President for his signature — all within the three to five weeks of the short “lame duck” session. In the other theory, Congress returns after the election and works out the details of a bill to extend, with some modifications, the 2008 Farm Bill until a date in the spring, summer, or fall of 2013. Under this scenario, the new session of Congress that begins in January (and lasts for the next two years) will start the five-year farm bill process all over again, with both House and Senate Agriculture Committees formulating a new bill that will then go through the entire legislative process all over again….
Could a new Congress next year simply revert to the farm bills passed this year? No, not exactly. Legislation does not carry forward from one Congress to the next. The process must start all over again, with bills introduced, markups in Committee, and votes on the floor of both bodies… That said, if the leaders and members of the Agriculture Committees (some of whom will be new next year) decide to bring forth and approve essentially the same bill they produced in 2012, that is an option open to them. But it still must go through the normal process and be subject to amendments and voting all over again.
What is the best path forward? There can be little doubt that the best path forward is for Congress to finish its work on the 2012 Farm Bill in 2012. That will mean getting the House bill to the House floor very quickly when the lame duck session begins, but leaving plenty of time for debate and amendments.
As to what to do about the farm bill: The Atlantic has just posted a speech by Wendell Berry on “the 50-year farm bill.”
I have described the need for a farm bill that makes sense of and for agriculture — not the fiscal and political sense of agriculture, as in the customary five-year farm bills, but the ecological sense without which agricultural sense cannot be made, and without which agriculture cannot be made sustainable. “A 50-Year Farm Bill,” which has been in circulation now for more than three years, is a proposal by The Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, with the concurrence of numerous allied groups and individuals. This bill addresses the most urgent problems of our dominant way of agriculture: soil erosion, toxic pollution of soil and water, loss of biodiversity, the destruction of farming communities and cultures. It addresses these problems by invoking nature’s primary law, in default of which her other laws are of no avail: Keep the ground covered, and keep it covered whenever possible with perennial plants.
We need a farm bill that promotes health–of people and the planet. Buried in the messy politics of the farm bill is an opportunity to do much good.
Will Congress take it? Only if we insist.
I get asked to blurb books every now and then and say yes to the ones I especially appreciate. Here are three recently published books, well worth having and reading:
Fred Kaufman, Bet the Farm: How Food Stopped Being Food, Wiley, 2012.
In Bet the Farm, Fred Kaufman connects the dots between food commodity markets and world hunger. Kaufman is a wonderfully entertaining writer, able to make the most arcane details of such matters as wheat futures crystal clear. Readers will be alternately amused and appalled by his accounts of relief agencies and the interventions of rich nations. This book is a must-read for anyone who cares about feeding the hungry in today’s globalized food marketplace. It’s on the reading list for my NYU classes.
Counihan C, Van Esterik P, eds. Food and Culture, Routledge, 2012.
Food and Culture is the indispensable resource for anyone delving into food studies for the first time. The editors have conveniently gathered readings from classic texts to the latest writings on cutting-edge issues in this field. Although in its third edition, the book has so much new material that it reads as fresh and should appeal and be useful to students and others from a wide range of disciplines.
Jon Krampner, An Informal History of Peanut Butter, The All-American Food, Columbia University Press, 2012.
Creamy and Crunchy is a fast-paced, entertaining, and wonderfully gossipy look at the history of everything about peanut butter, from nutrition to allergies and genetic modification—and with recipes, yet. Everyone who loves peanut butter will want to read this book (personally, I prefer crunchy).
I did an interview for Childhood Obesity with Jamie Devereaux, its features editor.
Here are the first and last questions. For the entire interview, click here:
The issue of access to healthy food is a major topic in the overall childhood obesity discussion in America. How important do you think it is to focus on solving the problems of food access as an objective in addressing childhood obesity?
I was impressed with Michelle Obama’s choice of targets for reducing childhood obesity—improving access to food in inner cities and improving school food. Both are excellent targets and, in a rational world, should attract widespread bipartisan support. It’s self-evident that it is more difficult to make healthier food choices when no healthy food choices are available or when healthier foods are relatively expensive.
Some years ago I lived in a low-income Washington, D.C., neighborhood and was appalled at the poor quality of the supposedly fresh foods offered in the single grocery store within walking distance. I wouldn’t buy it and wouldn’t expect anyone else to want it either. Some studies report that inadequate access is a huge problem in inner cities and rural areas; others say the opposite. Without getting into arcane details about how the studies differ, the access problem just seems obvious and obviously needs to be fixed.
Finally, if you could shape the discussion of healthy food access for children in America—how would you frame it and what would you focus on?
Kids don’t need kids’ food. If adults are eating healthfully, kids should be eating the same foods that adults eat. Babies don’t need commercial baby food. Older kids don’t need kids’ products. Families can all eat the same foods, and that should make life easier for all concerned. If you don’t want your kids drinking sodas, don’t bring them home from the supermarket. Teach kids to eat real foods early on, and they will be great eaters throughout life.
The take-home lesson from the defeat of Proposition 37—GMO labeling—is crystal clear.
As Tom Philpott explains in his Mother Jones post,
No fewer than two massive sectors of the established food economy saw it as a threat: the GMO seed/agrichemical industry, led by giant companies Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, and Bayer; and the food-processing/junk-food industries who transform GMO crops into profitable products, led by Kraft, Nestle, Coca-Cola, and their ilk. Collectively, these companies represent billions in annual profits; and they perceived a material threat to their bottom lines in the labeling requirement, as evidenced by the gusher of cash they poured into defeating it.
The proof lies in this remarkable graph of poll results produced by Pepperdine University/California Business Roundtable. Polling results started to shift only after the October 1 start of the “No on 37″ television ad campaign.
Philpott and others see this defeat as just the beginning of a strong increase in public concern about the role of money in politics.
In a way, it’s hard to understand why the industry thinks it is justified to put $46 million ($46 million!) into defeating a labeling initiative. The world has not come to an end.
In response to European public pressure, McDonald’s, another American company, produces its products without GMOs.
Demands for GMO labeling are not going to go away.
I’ve just seen the tough analysis by Jason Mark, Editor, Earth Island Journal:
As far as I can tell, the Prop 37 campaign failed to put together a field campaign capable of countering the flood of deceptive ads broadcast by the No campaign…
I don’t understand why the Prop 37 campaigners tried to fight on the airwaves in the first place. From Moment One they knew they would be hugely outspent on TV, radio and web ads…
When you’re the underdog, you don’t go toe-to-toe with the big guy. You have to resort to asymmetrical warfare, guerilla warfare. In electoral politics, that means prioritizing the ground war(organizers and activists) over the air war (paid advertisements)…
the good food movement needs to recommit itself to building power through old-fashioned, Saul Alinsky style organizing.
My post-hurricane Manhattan apartment still does not have telephone, internet, or television service, so I followed the election results on Twitter.
I knew that President Obama had been reelected when the Empire State Building turned on blue lights.
What’s ahead for food politics?
With the election out of the way, maybe the FDA can now:
Release final food safety rules (please!)
Issue proposed rules for front-of-package labels
Issue proposed rules for revising food labels
Require “added sugars” to be listed on labels
Clarify ”whole grain”
Release rules for menu labeling in fast-food restaurants
Maybe the USDA can
Release nutrition standards for competitive foods served in schools
And maybe Congress can pass the farm bill?
As for lessons learned:
The food industry has proven that it can defeat consumer initiatives by spending lots of money: $45 to $50 million on California’s Proposition 37 (GMO labeling), $4 million on soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte.
But if enough such initiatives get started, food companies might get the message?
Tuesday’s election has huge implications for food politics (see previous post). I’ve been asked to state an opinion. In case myviews are not obvious, here’s what I’m voting for and hoping you will too:
- If you care abou the issues discusssed here: Vote to reelect President Obama.
- If you live in California, lead the nation: Vote YES on 37 (GMO labels).
- If you live in Richmond, CA: Vote YES on Measures N and O (soda taxes and where that money will go).
- If you live in El Monte, CA: Vote YES on Measure H (soda taxes).
It’s great to vote with your fork. But the food movement needs real votes.
Vote with your vote!
My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle deals with the implication of Tuesday’s election for food politics.
Q: Neither of the presidential candidates is saying much about food issues. Do you think the election will make any difference to Michelle Obama’s campaign to improve children’s health?
A: Of course it will. For anyone concerned about the health consequences of our current food system, the upcoming election raises an overriding issue: Given food industry marketing practices, should government use its regulatory powers to promote public health or leave it up to individuals to take responsibility for dealing with such practices?
Republicans generally oppose federal intervention in public health matters – witness debates over health care reform – whereas Democrats appear more amenable to an active federal role.
The Democratic platform states: “With prevention and treatment initiatives on obesity and public health, Democrats are leading the way on supporting healthier, more physically active families and healthy children.”
Policy or lifestyle?
In contrast, the Republican platform states: “When approximately 80 percent of health care costs are related to lifestyle – smoking, obesity, substance abuse – far greater emphasis has to be put upon personal responsibility for health maintenance.”
At issue is the disproportionate influence of food and beverage corporations over policies designed to address obesity and its consequences. Sugar-sweetened beverages (sodas, for short) are a good example of how the interests of food and beverage corporations dominate American politics.
Because regular consumption of sodas is associated with increased health risks, an obvious public health strategy is to discourage overconsumption. The job of soda companies, however, is to sell more soda, not less. As a federal health official explained last year, policies to reduce consumption of any food are “fraught with political challenges not associated with clinical interventions that focus on individuals.”
One such challenge is corporate spending on contributions to election campaigns. Although soda political action committees tend to donate to incumbent candidates from both parties, soda company executives overwhelmingly favor the election of Mitt Romney.
As reported in the Oct. 12 issue of the newsletter Beverage Digest, soda executives view the re-election of President Obama as a “headwind” that could lead to greater regulation of advertising and product claims, aggressive safety inspections and characterizations of sodas as contributors to obesity. In contrast, they think a win by Mitt Romney likely to usher in “more beneficial regulatory and tax policies.”
As for lobbying, what concerns soda companies is revealed by disclosure forms filed with the Senate Public Records Office. Coca-Cola reports lobbying on, among other issues, agriculture, climate change, health and wellness, and competitive foods sold in schools. PepsiCo reports lobbying on marketing and advertising to children. Their opinions on such issues can be surmised.
But Coca-Cola also says it lobbies to “oppose programs and legislation that discriminate against specific foods and beverages” and to “promote programs that allow customers to make informed choices about the beverages they buy.”
Soda companies have lobbied actively against public health interventions recommended by the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity in 2010 and adopted as goals of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.
Implementation of several interventions – more informative food labels, restrictions on misleading health claims, limits on sodas and snacks sold in schools, menu-labeling in fast-food restaurants, and food safety standards – has been delayed, reportedly to prevent nanny-state public health measures from becoming campaign issues.
To counter New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 16-ounce cap on soda sales, the industry invested heavily in advertisements, a new website and more, all focused on “freedom of choice” – in my mind, a euphemism for protecting sales.
Although the obesity task force suggested that taxing sodas was worth studying, the American Beverage Association lobbied to “oppose proposals to tax sugary beverages” at the federal level. The soda industry reports spending more than $2 million to defeat Richmond’s soda tax ballot initiative Measure N, outspending tax advocates by 87 to 1.
In opposing measures to reduce obesity, the soda industry is promoting corporate health over public health and personal responsibility over public health.
Supporters of public health have real choices on Tuesday. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Let’s Move will get another chance.