Washington -- A bill is moving through Congress that will have as much or more effect on the health and pocketbooks of Americans than the more widely known attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It is the 2018 Farm Bill, which might also be called the Food Bill because its reach extends well beyond farmers. It contains re-authorizations for farm programs and for nutrition programs that feed tens of millions of Americans.
The Farm Bill is the vehicle through which rural-America policy is enacted. It is the vehicle through which nutrition is provided to needy families.
At least that is how it will be described as it is considered by Congress. In reality, it is more accurate to say it is the vehicle for how the destruction of rural-America is being implemented, and how bad nutrition is being perpetrated on Americans who are increasingly unhealthy because of it. Has no one noticed the decline of rural-America and the concomitant epidemic of obesity and diabetes? And made a connection?
How did this sorry state of affairs come about? For decades, farm policy has focused on "production" agriculture. A "nutrition" title was added long ago to the basic legislation to ease re-authorization passage, linking rural interests in agricultural commodities to urban interests in food stamps for the poor. Debates about the bill still revolve mostly around the details of the commodity programs and the level of food stamp funding, oblivious to the larger issues at stake.
Meanwhile, the country and the world are awash with commodities that are increasingly used in the production of unhealthy processed food. Low commodity prices due to the surpluses are depopulating rural areas across America. The largest use of food stamps is for the purchase of sweetened beverages and processed junk food. This unhealthy change in diet is taking place in other countries as well; Brazil now has a new obesity and diabetes crisis on its hands.
It would he hard to devise from scratch a more diabolical Farm Bill than the one Congress will be passing by thoughtless inertia. What would be a better approach?
Markets are changing. There is growing demand for healthy food, which is "high-quality, defined, traceable, and secure," according to Tom Dorr, the former CEO of the U.S. Grains Council, who is alarmed at the failure of Congress to respond to it. He advocates a market approach, rather than a commodities approach, to encourage and build these markets.
That would mean rather than putting all our eggs in the basket of production agriculture, which we might call Agriculture 1.0, we would put more in the basket of nutrition agriculture, or Agriculture 2.0. It would mean enhancing the other titles of the Farm Bill to turn loose our inventive population on ways to grow and market food that is not only better for us, but which could re-vitalize our rural communities. It would mean taking unhealthy products off the list of what can be purchased through SNAP, as is already done through WIC, thereby curtailing a huge and counterproductive taxpayer subsidy to the soft-drink industry.
Is a move to Ag 2.0 possible? Take a look at a recent segment from The News Hour, which told the story of an unemployed coal miner in West Virginia who, with the help of his local community college, restored the soil of a decapitated mountain-top and is selling his planted crops, his pork and his poultry, into local healthy food markets. Is this scalable? Of course it is. There is still a population living in many rural and urban areas that is skilled in labor-intensive farming, and would be eager to get back to it were there markets for their products. Why not unleash the existing, formidable Extension Service onto Ag 2.0, rather than tying it to 1.0 forever?
Neither political party seems to be interested. Republicans are tied through campaign finance to Ag 1.0. Democrats are still ensnarled by interest-group politics and don't see that this would be a huge opportunity to do something for rural-America, where they desperately need votes. Neither party sees the Farm Bill as it should, as an opportunity to reverse our population's declining health, even as an answer to opioid addiction that is driven by unhealthy foods and bad economic prospects.
Someone in Congress should ask CBO to score what a move to Ag 2.0 would cost, or save. I'm confident it would result in huge savings for American taxpayers, when nutrition based agriculture starts to cut down on federal costs for health related expenditures in SS disability, Medicare, and Medicaid. Or maybe ask for a GAO study? Time's a-wasting.