That Pesky Farm Bill: A Snapshot

After failing to be renewed in 2012 and left to survive on a short term extension, the Farm Bill is again back on the floor of Congress. The bill has not made much buzz in the national media, but it is incredibly important to the national food system.

So what exactly is this bill, and why is it so important? The Farm Bill shapes the foundation of the US food system and provides key legislation on farming, food safety, land use, rural policy, and more. That may sound far reaching, and it should. This bill is a broad piece of legislation that controls everything from what farmers put in the ground to what you put in your mouth.

You may not realize it, but the Farm Bill impacts daily life more than you’d expect. It establishes what you eat, the price you pay for food, industrial farming practices on the environment, and the wellbeing of farmers.

Traditionally, the Farm Bill is renewed every 5 years or so and modified based on the framework of past bills. If it is not renewed or an extension is not approved, the law ‘snaps back’ to permanent provisions outlined in the 1938 and 1949 versions. This, to be frank, would be devastating (old laws usually don’t mix well with modern practices). Thankfully, this has never been the case, but the possibility is always looming when politicians cannot come to an agreement on how to fund the multi-billion dollar behemoth.

Although the majority of past bills have heavily favored commodity subsidies that help keep farmers afloat, recent Farm Bills have been increasingly favorable to organic farming, local food production, and the cultivation of more ‘specialty’ crops (i.e. fruits and veggies instead of commodity crops like corn, wheat, soy, and cotton). That’s good start and a trend that will hopefully continue, but much more could be done.

The current bill that is making its way through Congress mostly maintains the status quo, keeps in place many subsidies that will help big farms stay big, and continues the national dependency on those commodity crops. Unfortunately it also proposes large cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) that will leave many low income Americans without the means to feed their families.

Now, that is just a snapshot, as this bill is one of the most complex pieces of law there is out there. We’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars here! But as the debate heats up on Capitol Hill it will be interesting to see how the face of the US food system is painted for the next 5 years.

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Ag Gag Laws On The Rise

It used to seem like a few times a year some story would come out exposing animal cruelty at large scale farms. This kind of information has been crucial in combatting animal abuse for years but has increasingly been facing challenges from local law makers. A recent NY Times article dug into these laws that would make undercover farm investigations illegal. In some cases investigators would be deemed terrorist, regarded on the same level as those who try to harm innocent people with crude explosives.

While these exposés are odiously received by the meat processors, they have been a crucial tool in keeping the industry in check. Both the USDA and FDA go through long processes to regulate meat production, often with lukewarm results, and investigative reporting is a way to rapidly bring information to the public.

It would be a shame to see these agricultural gag orders, or ag gags, become prevalent in the US. The more we know about our food system and the more we can do to improve it is in everyone’s interest.

UPDATE: A great interactive map was put together by Susie Cagle for Grist laying out ag gag legislation across the country. Check it out here.

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What About The Kids?

A recent report by The Center for Science in the Public Interest reviewed many of the kids’ menus at fast food chains across the US found a whopping 97% of the meals offered fall short of the CSPI’s nutritional criteria. While alarming, this should also come as no surprise. Fast food and fast casual restaurants rely heavily on highly processed ingredients that are easy to store and prepare, and abandon the thought of nutritional value all together.

What is most shocking however is that even when evaluated by the standards of the National Restaurant Associations (the primary lobbying group for restaurants), a staggering 91% of meals do not meet their suggested standards either. While it is true that most major chains have added apples and milk as alternatives to their kids’ menus, the industry appears to be taking the ‘let’s do as little as possible and talk as loud as we can about it’ approach.

There is little altruism at play when adding these improved options to the kids’ menu. Take McDonald’s Apple Dippers with Low Fat Caramel Sauce for example. Instead of offering wholesome apples as a sidekick for kids’ meals, McDonald’s serves a small package of surgically peeled apples accompanied by a sugar laden dipping sauce to sit along side burgers or nuggets. This is surely an upgrade to the standard pouch of fries, but the high sugar content of the dipping sauce virtually negates the majority of gains from the swap. The same can be said about replacing soda with milk drinks loaded with added sugar. Yes it is an upgrade, but not by much.

If restaurants truly want to support and promote healthy nutrition for children, there is much more that can be done. Why are salads or grilled chicken sandwiches rare members of the kids’ menus? Why are there no vegetable sides available? Why should a child’s diet be restricted to chicken nuggets and burgers?

Little progress was seen in the CSPI’s last evaluation from 2008 to present. The current climate shows little reason to believe much will change over the next 5 years.

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We Just Want To Know

Much ado has been made about Whole Foods’ recent assertion that they will require labeling on all GMO foods sold in their stores by 2018, and rightfully so. It’s a game changer. Of course there are those who have cheered loudly at the news, followed by the jeers of skeptics and critics, but overall this is a huge step forward in providing consumers with more information about what is in their food. And that’s all it’s about – providing information. When pressed in a recent interview with the Washington Post about the endgoal of this intrepid decision, co-CEO Walter Robb remarked

I don’t know how this will come out in terms of the labels. It’s not like we’re going to put a skull and crossbones on it. We’re just going to put a label on it and let people make their decisions. We’re not aiming to be a GMO-free store, but we’re aiming to be a 100 percent transparent store.

And it is that simple. Those pushing for this labeling on a national scale are asking for one thing – information. So, while the fabled Prop 37 in California was defeated, support for this level of transparency has risen and many states have begun initiatives to get labeling on the ballot again soon. All of this is encouraging, but admittedly a long and arduous process. Whole Foods has shown that change doesn’t have to wait for legislation to act, it can come from well intentioned companies and the support of the consumer.

But with chirping about a potential about face from Big Food on labeling, any offers for a compromise must be taken with caution. With Big Food at the bargaining table, weaker versions of labeling laws chockfull of loopholes are inevitable, and labeling will become a self-serving tool to push more product. The leaders in the food industry have deep pockets and know what they are doing: there is almost always a catch.

With the science of the longterm affects of GMO foods still in its infancy (thanks largely inpart to Big Food itself), there has been much debate about how useful or dangerous these products can be, but an outright ban until that has more clarity is not likely, nor is it the answer. Providing this information is simple, harmless, and at the end of the day, the right thing to do.

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