Mention the 2012 Farm Bill these days, which I do as often as I can, and you’re likely to be met with uncomfortable silence, head shaking, eye rolling, or worse. Legislators who are thinking about the next Farm Bill are already talking about it in terms of untouchable commodity programs, compromises they’re ready to make, and scraps they’re desperate to hold on to. Average Americans who are interested in these sorts of things–the ones who don’t stare blankly–are overwhelmed by the size of the bill, its complexity, and the various special interests at play. It’s not pretty.
Understanding the Farm Bill: A Citizen’s Guide to a Better Food System, a Facebook page launched last month by Mark Muller from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) and myself aims to take a first, small step towards demystifying the Farm Bill. Our goal is to empower concerned citizens across the United States by communicating what’s at stake in the 2012 Farm Bill in terms that we can all understand. For example:
- All across the country, children are being fed highly processed and packaged corn, soy, and wheat-laden school lunches, while at the same time we express increasing concern about childhood obesity. What farm bill policy drivers can help make our kids healthier?
- We are wasting soil and water resources with inefficient, environmentally disastrous agricultural systems. What farm bill policy drivers can protect our environment and our ability to produce enough food for future generations?
- Recently in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked the US Department of Agriculture to disallow the use of food stamps to purchase soda for 2 years, allowing the city to gather data on whether or not this change has a positive impact on health outcomes. What farm bill policy drivers can help promote healthy food options without taking away freedom of choice?
We’re in a “dire federal budget situation,” Mark Muller says, “many have dim hopes for significant policy change in the forthcoming Farm Bill. But we simply cannot ignore this opportunity that only comes around about once every five years. Farm Bill policies are too expensive and inequitable, and they prop up a food system that quickly needs to become more sustainable and more healthful.”
Many groups are already actively working on tactical Farm Bill-related issues, of course. The 2008 Farm Bill included funding for nutrition, rural development, energy, organic farming, forestry, and more, and groups whose programs are dependent on these funds are eager to protect them in 2012. This is as it should be, and yet there’s a clear opportunity for those without a specific program at risk to think about the Farm Bill more holistically. What’s the big picture we’re trying to accomplish? And if each group’s goal is to represent its constituents and protect its program, can we ever get there? Our experience with the 2008 Farm Bill–in which we sacrificed true reform for incremental change–says no.
Our new Facebook page is just a start. Over the next several months, Mark and I will be inviting readers to post an article, express an opinion, tell a friend, or call a congressperson. We’ll be looking for people who are willing to think big about the 2012 Farm Bill, to share their experience, and to commit to making a difference. We are looking for tactical ways to empower people who are willing to fight through the bill’s complex bulk and participate. We hope you’ll join us.