Is there a connection between legislation the press has pretty much ignored and why so many poor people have become obese? Why our children eat bad school lunches? Why huge amounts of private land are farmed and sprayed with chemicals that run off into our waters, rather than being left wild? Why two million Mexican farmers and other agricultural workers feel terrible pressures to sneak into the United States?
You bet there’s a connection. And Michael Pollan made it, powerfully, in a New York Times Magazine article on April 22 (The Way We Live Now/You Are What You Grow”)
The connection, Pollan writes, is “the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system – indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system.”
For example, he cites a study which “concluded that the rules of the food game in America are organized in such a way that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic strategy is to eat badly – and get fat.” The incentive is to buy, say, Twinkies, not carrots.
Given such facts, Pollan says, “you would think the farm-bill debate would engage the nation’s political passions every five years, but that hasn’t been the case. If the quintennial antidrama of the ‘farm bill debate’ holds true to form this year, a handful of farm-state legislators will thrash out the mind-numbing details behind closed doors, with virtually nobody else, either in Congress or in the media, paying much attention. Why? Because most of us assume that, true to its name, the farm bill is about ‘farming,’ an increasingly quaint activity that involves no one we know and in which few of us think we have a stake. This leaves our own representatives free to
ignore the farm bill, to treat it as a parochial piece of legislation affecting a handful of their Midwestern colleagues. Since we aren’t paying attention, they pay no political price for trading, or even selling, their farm-bill votes. The fact that the bill is deeply encrusted with incomprehensible jargon and prehensile programs dating back to the 1930s makes it almost impossible for the average legislator to understand the bill should he or she try to, much less the average citizen. It’s doubtful this is an accident.”
Pollan cites indications that “this year will be far different. The public-health community has come to recognize it can’t hope to address obesity and diabetes without addressing the farm bill. The nvironmental community recognizes that as long as we have a farm bill that promotes chemical and feedlot agriculture, clean water will remain a pipe dream. The development community has woken up to the fact that global poverty can’t be fought without confronting the ways the farm bill depresses world crop prices.”
Maybe this time, then, the press attention to the farm bill will be far different, too.