What's Wrong With The Farm Bill

Food is what we eat day in and day out and it takes many forms: a pleasure, a necessity, an indulgence. A lot of people who love food think about it in many different ways too; how to cook it, where to get it, and who makes it best. But as Marion Nestle pointed out last night during her address to the participants of Global Gateways and Local Connections: Cities, Agriculture, and the Future of Food Systems conference in New York City, many don't think about where it starts. Agriculture, Nestle admittedly told the crowd, is something that is so widely overlooked by our country (even by herself when she began her studies in the late eighties), but it's time to start paying attention to it.

Ironically, just a couple of hours before her keynote speech, the Senate passed a five-year, $500 billion farm bill with bipartisan support, making Nestle's address even more crucial and timely for everyone to hear. The 1,000-page document is agriculturally-focused and filled with hundreds of programs, statements, and clauses that any average citizen would not be able to understand, but, interestingly enough, has a huge impact on that one thing that the entire country needs, loves and enjoys: food.

The farm bill was created by our country's government in the 1930's, at a time when the depression had a heavy impact on farmers and their financial status. In an effort to protect the farmers, the government created a support system with congressional committees, agri-businesses, and the United States Department of Agriculture, which has now resulted in a considerable piece of legislation covering all sizes and scopes of the country's agriculture, and in layman's terms, food. For Nestle, an ideal farm bill would give affordable food for all, would help everyone make a decent living, promote local and sustainable food systems, fair trade, protect natural resources, and most importantly, promote healthy eating. What she explained yesterday and what you'd find out if you were able to understand it, is that it does close to none these things.

Nestle described farming in the early 20th century as "get big or get out," when the number of crops went down and productivity went up. It was a time when mega-agriculture businesses started overtaking the country, creating less opportunity for small farming and diminishing the variety of health and specialty crops at the public's fingertips. In her description of farming in our country today, Nestle  noted the overwhelming existence of crops such as corn and soybeans, the negative implications with dairy farming, the limited amount of fruits and vegetables being grown, and the production of ethanol and the major "worldwide implications" it has.

Nestle went on to point out that the farm bill, unfortunately, is tightly linked with this kind of movement and favors big, intense agri-businesses and overproduction. Beyond its detrimental focus, the farm bill is bleeding in many other places as well. The massive document is "huge," Nestle explained, covering all sorts of minute and complex programs that are difficult to understand and immense in numbers. She even took the time to point out absurd and odd parts of the bill, like the clause that states that TV and Film extras who have to bring pets to work do not fall under certain regulations (which, ironically, has nothing to do with food), and the Defense Department's rider amendment regarding budget cuts (how did the Defense Department get in there?). She finished by saying that the bill is "profoundly undemocratic," and unfortunately plays a huge role in not only our country's farming but in the health of the nation. Its focus on big businesses and limited support of specialty crops is in direct correlation with the overproduction of calories and limited supply of food that is actually good for us.

For Nestle the answer is easy: She wants our agriculture policies and health policies to be more tightly linked. So many of our health problems, such as obesity, begin with one important factor: food, which starts with agriculture and so therefore should be considered in the farm bill. It's alarming to think that such a colossal piece of paper plays such a huge role on our country and its health, yet has so many things wrong with it and is so widely overlooked. Nestle said that it's time to start "voting with your fork," and wants us to fix the farm bill. This movement is even more crucial for the cook. The most important tool used in cooking, and the wherewithal to get it, is all dependent on the farm bill and what it governs.

How many times have you thought about legislation or the government when you sat down to enjoy a meal or melted a piece of butter in a sauté pan? Whether or not you have, Nestle asks you to now.

For more information on the farm bill and how you can get involved, visit Nestle's website Food Politics.

Anne Dolce is the Cook Editor at The Daily Meal. Follow her on Twitter @anniecdolce