Reform the Farm Bill and Re-farm America
Then There Was the Garden

July 25, 2007

Reform the Farm Bill
And Re-farm America

Gar Smith / The-Edge

Jason Mark, Journal Editor and organic farmer, supports a progressive Farm Bill. Credit: Edge photo by Gar Smith
More people would be paying attention to the debate over the 2007 Farm Bill if it were called what it really is -- the Food Bill.

Originally crafted during the Depression to help small farmers survive, the Farm Bill eventually morphed into pork barrel warehouse serving the needs of large agricultural companies, who produce a half-dozen "commodity crops" -- corn, wheat, cotton, rice and oilseed.

Because the $300 billion Farm Bill largely determines what is grown on 200 million acres of private land, it also essentially dictates what Americans eat. According to the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California, the Farm Bill is responsible for "damaging our farmland, undermining farming communities, and making the most harmful and dangerous foods the cheapest and most plentiful."

More than 36 percent of the Farm Bill's billions traditionally go to the growers of commodity crops -- corn, wheat, cotton, rice, tobacco, soybeans, feed grains and oilseed. The arrangement benefits cattlegrowers who raise their beef on cheap, subsidized grain. The losers are American consumers because, thanks to the Farm Bill, "the most processed and least nutritious foods associated with heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and cancer are all the cheapest forms of food in our country."

While commodity crops receive billion of dollars in Federal support, the Farm Bill provides no support for healthier "specialty crops" like fruits, vegetables, nuts. CCFJ: "While the government is heavily subsidizing corn, grains and other crops that go into low-cost processed foods with questionable nutrition value, there are no equivalent support programs for fresh fruits and vegetables." CCFJ has called for a reformed Farm Bil that "ensures farmers a fair price for everything they grow, ensures consumers equal access to affordable healthy foods, and does not disadvantage farmers in other countries."

The California Food & Justice Coalition (a band of more than 75 organizations working to rebuild regional food systems) notes that, under the current Farm Bill, "the majority of farm payments have been in the form of subsidies that flow disproportionately to very large farms growing a handful of commodity crops in a few regions of the country."

The California Coalition for Food & Farming (CCFF) has called for a new Farm Bill that invests in local food systems, increases access to organic fruits and vegetables trough urban food banks and Food Stamps, ensures equal opportunities for minority farmers, and supports organic and regenerative agriculture, protects farmworkers from exposure to pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. More than 2.5 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers harvest U.S. crops while earning less than $12,500 a year. Congress is being asked to reform the Farm Bill to protect farmworkers and their families from dangerous chemicals while funding a transition to safer, non-toxic alternatives.

Two important laws designed to support good food and social justice are Rep. Earl Blumenauer's (D-OR) Healthy Food and Farm Act (H.R. 2364) and the FOOD for a Healthy America Act co-sponsored by Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY).

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Then There Was the Garden
By Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader
I am often asked what forces shaped me. Rather than trying to give a full answer, I often reply simply, "I had a lucky choice of parents." Among other things, my parents were responsible for passing down the time-tested traditions they had learned from the generations before them -- traditions they refined and adapted to the unfamiliar country and culture to which they had emigrated

Ralph Waldo Emerson once defined a weed as a plant whose virtues were yet to be discovered, and in those days before herbicides and lawncare firms, we never gave a thought to the difference between grasses and weeds. Dandelions were beautiful to me, as were a large variety of flowers -- daisies, Black-eyed Susans, day lilies, jack-in-the-pulpits, whether they were in vogue or not. I made a study of their petals and stems and of the busy, focused insects that were attracted to them.

Near the large field behind our street was our garden, where my parents planted an assortment of vegetables in our very rocky New England soil. The pebbles and stones were countless; I knew this first-hand because one of my chores was to clear them out to make room for the tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, string beans, rhubarbs, radishes, parsley and squash. I learned to admire farmers whose families had to care for so many acres of planted furrows and orchards when I realized how much work it took to manage our plot, which was the size of a large living room.

One summer, when I was nine or ten, a mysterious, unseen creature to a keen liking to the lettuce plants in our garden. I was appointed the lookout for whatever omnivorous beast was raiding our crop. Soon enough, I spotted a rabbit happily chewing away in our little plot, and gave chase. The rabbit took off but I gamboled off after him, holding a large rock in my hand.

When I finally overtook him, the trespassing herbivore suddenly froze and looked frightfully at his towering assailant. I lofted the stone in the air, aiming at him from less than four feet away. For a few seconds, I just stood there, breathing hard from the run, my hand suspended overhead. I saw those wide-open eyes, and the crouching bunny to whom they belonged. But something held me back.

Finally, I put down the rock and turned back. The rabbit scampered, the hopped away. I could not explain what had happened in my mind, except that it had a lot to do with the image of a dead rabbit, its eyes closed.

Looking back on that moment today, I know that that's when I realized I would never be a hunter -- perhaps seeding my interests is safety, health and conservation. I learned something about myself on that day of no regrets -- among other things, that there were other ways to defend a lettuce patch without destroying an innocent rabbit nibbling its meal.

Adapted from The Seventeen Traditions by Ralph Nader (HarperCollins Publishers, 2007)

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