When I hear someone say that “our food system is broken,” it stings.
I think about my mom, who has farmed my whole life, and about my friends and the countless other farmers and ranchers who work hard every day to grow our food. The broken food-system narrative implicitly blames them for problems like environmental degradation, obesity, so-called “food deserts” and the gutting of rural communities.
But the sad truth is that our food system is working exactly how it was designed to—and right now, Congress is reconfiguring it to become even worse.
What’s broken is the 2018 House Farm Bill, which passed in June with little news coverage. This is only the second time in history that Congress has considered a farm bill while Republicans control both the executive and legislative branches. The result is a bill that serves Washington, D.C.’s fattest wallets and most powerful special interests. Its goal can be summed up as: Deregulate the rich, and police the poor.
While the national eye was focused on the bill’s punitive SNAP, or food stamp, work requirements, Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas and other Republican leaders worked hard to attack American family farmers. By drafting a behemoth of more than 600 pages that overwhelmed even experts, the writers of this omnibus bill hid devastating legislation in plain sight.
Why is this bill so bad? The House Farm Bill—which goes to conference committee with the version passed by the Senate—is a giveaway to corporate interests at the expense of programs that improve our environment and help family farmers. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents over 100 grassroots agriculture organizations across the country, said that the bill “undermines decades of work by farmers and advocates to advance sustainable agriculture.”
The House bill removes federal subsidy caps so that mega-farms and millionaires can collect more of our tax dollars. It eliminates the enormously popular Conservation Stewardship Program, which has helped farmers implement sustainable farming practices on more than 70 million acres of productive farm and forest land. Perhaps most troubling of all, it strays from food and agricultural policy and into a full-frontal attack on the environment by gutting key protections in the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act.
“They’re digging up their wish lists and trying to pass things that would be otherwise unacceptable,” said Mark Lipson, a California farmer who has worked on organic farming policy for over 30 years, and who served in President Obama’s Agriculture Department. “These provisions are a raw exercise of power to fulfill a long-term anti-environment agenda.”
The Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act are two of our most important environmental policies, and they are among the few that have legal teeth to protect individual species and their ecosystems. The House farm bill, however, allows toxic chemicals to be used even if they kill endangered species, and even if they’re dumped directly into rivers and streams. It also eliminates our right as citizens to comment on logging projects, and it does away with scientific reviews of logging proposals, no matter the potential environmental consequences.
These injurious provisions are hard to find in the voluminous House farm bill. A stand-alone bill that eviscerates the Endangered Species Act or Clean Water Act would be unlikely to pass, but there’s so much in this bloated bill that any single destructive act gets drowned out.
I grew up on a farm, operated my own farm for seven years, and work now as an agricultural researcher. I’ve gotten to know family farmers across all walks of life, from large to small, conventional to alternative, and not one of them wants to see our waters more polluted or our landscapes destroyed—all of which this bill enables.
It’s time for a different farm bill, one that redirects the nearly $200 billion of proposed non-nutrition spending (about 70 percent of farm bill funding goes toward nutrition programs; the rest funds agriculture) away from corporate agribusiness and toward family farmers who steward the land. The farm bill could help new and more diverse farmers succeed. Environmental stewardship programs could reward farmers for sequestering carbon and increasing biodiversity. We could start to value our farmland as a public good to preserve for future generations.
We don’t yet know if the final bill, a mash-up of the House and Senate versions, will be signed by President Trump before the upcoming midterm elections. Either way, there’s still time to pressure our representatives to do what’s right for farmers and the land we all depend on. So please stop saying our food system is broken, and do what you can to help fix it. Call Congress; get involved in local politics; and go vote. Our farmers and our future depend on it.
Margiana Petersen-Rockney is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is a doctoral student studying climate change adaptation in agriculture at the University of California, Berkeley.