REVIEW: Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill
Bellies up
Digesting Farm Bill politics.

By Laura Sayre


Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill
By Daniel Imhoff
2007; 136 pages
Watershed Media, distributed by
University of California Press

Posted May 11, 2007: The history of the Farm Bill in America is a mini-history of 20th-century American farming. Inaugurated as the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 and renewed and revised every five or so years since, the Farm Bill has grown into a multi-billion dollar legislative package affecting everything from what's on your kid's school lunch tray to the price of cotton in Africa.

But while the Farm Bill's true constituency—those whose daily lives are impacted by its outcome—now includes virtually every U.S. citizen, the number of Americans who claim a role in how it gets written is tiny: a few dozen farm-state legislators on a handful of committees, answerable to a few thousand farmers and a clique of lobbyists. The non-farming population yawns.

This book seeks to change all that. Intuitively organized and terrifically illustrated (although marred by an unfortunate number of copyediting lapses), Food Fight more than fulfills its objective of providing an accessible, engaging primer to the Farm Bill's past and present complexities. Like all of Watershed Media's books, it is at once timely and attractive, reconfiguring chronic eco-political dilemmas from a fresh perspective.

Here you will find short, effective summaries of key Farm Bill outrages—from commodity payment disparities (195 farms received more than $1 million a piece in 2005) to program distortions (millions of conservation program dollars have been diverted to help mega-livestock farms build manure lagoons) to crop insurance fraud (estimated at $160 million in 2004). Studies have repeatedly found that subsidies encourage farm consolidation, decimate local economies and accelerate rural population loss, but still they are with us, fiercely preserved by the few who benefit.

Imhoff highlights the tragic disparity between farmer interest in conservation initiatives and funding to pay for them, despite "mandatory" spending levels written into the original legislation. He demystifies the Farm Bill life cycle, from initial authorization to annual appropriations via Senate and House committees, subcommittees and the budget reconciliation process. Perhaps most importantly, he spells out the critical issues in play for the 2007 Farm Bill, major pieces of which are being hashed out at this very moment.

Among these critical issues is the tug of war between status quo commodity payments—which have been outlawed by the World Trade Organization and were supposed to have been phased out under the 1996 Farm Bill—and a more forward-looking farm policy centered on "agri-environmental" programs that recognize and reward farmers' roles as responsible stewards of the land (and water and air, for that matter).

The 2002 Farm Bill negotiations fostered a landmark coalition over this very issue, with traditional rural advocacy groups and environmentalists coming together to support the Conservation Security Program, woefully underfunded in practice but in principle a revolution in U.S. farm policy. Part of what's at stake in 2007 is whether this new coalition, strengthened by experience and maturity, can achieve even more this time around—or at least protect and reinforce what's been gained so far.

Another key issue is energy, which the 2002 Farm Bill addressed in the form of Section 9006 grants to promote investment in on-farm renewable energy and other projects. How the ethanol boom and mounting interest in biofuels as a means of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil may make themselves felt in the 2007 Farm Bill remains to be seen.

But what really could set this Farm Bill apart from earlier legislation is the now-widespread recognition of the public health crisis associated with obesity, diabetes and other consequences of the abysmally poor average American diet. The statistics are familiar but still astounding. Two-thirds of Americans aged 20 to 74 weigh more than they should, with half of those qualifying as clinically obese. Fifteen percent of children are overweight; a mere 2 percent eat a healthy diet as defined by federal guidelines.

Obesity falls disproportionately on the poor because bad food is generally less expensive than good food. Between 1985 and 2000, Food Fight notes, the price of fruits and vegetables increased 38 percent, while the price of soft drinks fell 23 percent. Why? Because federal subsidies make soft-drink ingredients like corn syrup cheaper than dirt.

Public health has played a role in Farm Bill discussions since the 1930s, when surplus crops were first purchased and redistributed to those suffering from Depression-era hunger and unemployment. Three decades later, as Imhoff explains it, negotiations between the "hunger lobby" and the "farm bloc" led to the 1964 Food Stamp Act, expanding food relief programs to something like their present form. To this day, food stamp and other nutrition programs account for about half of all Farm Bill spending.

Demand for food stamps has been rising steadily since 2001, despite the fact that just 60-70 percent of those eligible make use of the program. In 2005, 35 million people in the U.S.—12 percent of the population—were considered to be food insecure.

The question, then, is whether roughly half of all Farm Bill funding is essentially exacerbating the need for the other half, and whether a saner farm and food policy could address the whole suite of problems—farm viability, environmental protection, public health, hunger—from a more humane direction. There are some promising proposals on the legislative table at this moment. What’s needed is for all Americans to read this book, and then stand up and make their opinions heard.

In Imhoff's words, with "more than $600 billion spent on Farm Bill programs since 2000 alone, it seems reasonable to ask: Have these taxpayer dollars accomplished goals of a greater public good?" (70).