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October 3, 2007

Food and the Farm Bill

imhoff

During the Great Depression President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought a “new means to rescue agriculture,” as decades of over-farming and overproducing had devastated the soil and set the stage for the deadly dust storms that impoverished Midwestern farmers. So, in 1933 the Farm Bill was born. And that, said Dan Imhoff, homestead farmer and author of Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill, is when the genie was let out of the bottle.

But what was intended to feed the hungry and support farmers has, 70 years later, unleashed a nasty cycle of agricultural industrialization, crop monoculture, a nutritional public health crisis, and, as Imhoff said in his September 26, 2007, lecture hosted by the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the “cornification” of America.

The Farm Bill, as it is known colloquially, or the Food and Farm Bill, as Imhoff refers to it, allocates about $90 billion dollars annually: about half of that money goes toward food stamps and school lunch programs, and another 35 percent of that tax bill is set aside for income and price supports—subsidies—for farmers.

And yet, with over $31 billion dollars going toward subsidies, the average farmer still struggles. “Farm families need to keep their day jobs,” said Imhoff, and this is because roughly half of the commodity subsidies goes to the hugest producers, who make up about five percent of all eligible farmers.

In addition, about 84 percent of farm subsidies goes to corn, cotton, wheat, soybeans and rice. “Are we investing in massive monocultures for just five crops?” he asked. The fall-out of these policies, he said, is reflected in escalating nationwide obesity. The poor are most affected by what the Farm Bill puts into the supermarket—fats, high fructose corn syrup, dairy and meat—because the unhealthy calories are the cheapest.

In fact, it’s the healthiest calories that are the most expensive. From 1985 to 2000, Imhoff said, unhealthy foods such as soda and candy dropped in price, five to twenty-five percent. At the same time, the cost of fresh produce rose by 40 percent. “That’s the Farm Bill at work,” said Imhoff. 

Every five to seven years, the Farm Bill comes up for re-authorization, as it has now. Imhoff urged that supporters of legislative change lobby for a conservation-based approach to agriculture, rewarding farmers for how they farm rather than how much. And he stressed the need to align the Farm Bill with nutrition, revolutionize how children relate to food, and label all food with the country of origin. Said Imhoff, “This Farm Bill is our chance to get this right.” —Christine Grillo

Public Affairs media contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Tim Parsons or Kenna L. Lowe at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu.