A Healthy Farm Bill
14 Feb, 2011
You’ve no doubt heard of the Farm Bill—an enormous piece of legislation, enacted every five years or so, that is the primary agriculture and food policy tool of the federal government. It funds agriculture and many other programs that fall under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—and also affects the health of every American who eats.
Whether or not it was the intention of its authors, the Farm Bill has been subsidizing a food system that is factually making Americans unhealthy—both from the foods produced and from the methods of crop and meat production. Now a group of concerned professionals and activists have put together a Charter for a Healthy Farm Bill—a proposal that is asking legislators to make changes to the Farm Bill that provide for a sustainable, healthy food system.
“The charter is based on a broad set of principles for the food system that concern how to make the food system healthier and more sustainable,” David Wallinga, MD, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, told Organic Connections. “Those principles were released by four major membership groups: the American Public Health Association, the American Dietetic Association, the American Planning Association and the American Nurses Association. The charter basically picks those health-based principles and says that if we’re going to spend roughly $60 billion a year over the next five years on a new Farm Bill, then it should be promoting that kind of a food system.”
These principles include health impacts across the entire life cycle of food production; sustainable growing practices; resilience of crops to pests and shortages; fairness to farmers and laborers; diversity of crops, production practices and scales (small to large farms); economic balance; and transparency of production and distribution methods.
“There are a lot of good things about the Farm Bill, and then there are some things we feel could be improved on,” Wallinga said. “The major issue with the Farm Bill is that it was never designed necessarily to promote the health of Americans. It started off being a piece of legislation that was mostly about income support for farmers, to help them stay on the farm regardless of what they grow. That piece has morphed into a program largely to support production of just a few crops, many of which don’t even end up in human food. But by far the biggest piece of the Farm Bill now is really a poverty alleviation program—a food-stamp program—the primary purpose of which is really income support for poor people, not necessarily focusing on the health of the food that goes to those people.
“What we’d like to see is a Farm Bill that should still do some of those things, but also has as its primary goal promoting diets for Americans that are healthier, and promoting farmers to grow those foods and grow them in a way that is healthy for the environment in the long term as well.”
There are other ways in which the Farm Bill could be more beneficial. “One part of the last Farm Bill involves research,” Wallinga continued. “The goal of research is to kind of point us in the direction we want to go; so if the direction we want to go in is a country where we grow more healthy food and we grow it in healthier ways, then the research ought to get us there. But it doesn’t necessarily do that right now; a lot of the research has been and continues to be about how to grow more corn and soy and other commodity crops, not food crops, in a very industrial way that uses a lot of fossil fuels and a lot of water.”
The charter already has the support of many health authorities, including noted physician and author Dr. Andrew Weil, and Marion Nestle, PhD, of New York University and author of Food Politics.
Dr. Wallinga concluded with how we can all help get the charter to Washington. “Every interaction that consumers have with policymakers could emphasize that this is the kind of food system they want, too. They could ask their health professionals to sign on to the charter. Really anyone can sign on to the charter—you could be a health-concerned citizen or consumer and sign it; but we think that health professionals have a particular role in terms of endorsing it.
“Additionally, your retail supermarkets, the companies that run your hospital cafeteria or the cafeteria in your office building, are all extremely sensitive to what their clients demand. Many of them are starting to look harder at the healthfulness of the food they offer, how sustainably it’s grown and, indirectly, at the government policies that support that as well, including the Farm Bill.”
To view and sign the Charter for a Healthy Farm Bill, visit www.HealthyFoodAction.org.