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Forget the Farm Bill: Where We Should Set Our Sights This Year For Real Change

Focusing on the farm bill will use up endless resources and result in relatively little gain.

I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I don't care about the 2012 farm bill. Here's why.

The sustainable food and agriculture movement has a lot of momentum and a lot of opportunities right now, but only limited resources in terms of lobbying power. The movement has a large amount of people who care, but a relatively small amount of money compared to entrenched agriculture interests. It has a few strategically placed sympathetic appointees and elected representatives in the government. But, unfortunately, Dennis Kucinich alone cannot pass the vastly revamped farm bill we need.

But outside of Washington, the ranks of those who care about localizing our food supply and making agriculture more sustainable are growing every day. After all, delicious food is a powerful recruiting tool. The sustainable food movement is not powerless. Not nearly. But the movement can make far more progress if it focuses its energy on more winnable issues. Focusing on the farm bill for the whole of 2012 will use up endless resources and result in relatively little gain.

Taking Big Ag Head On

Taking on the farm bill is taking on the entrenched agriculture interests that gave us the food system we have -- pesticides, processed food, factory farms, and all -- head on. The Agriculture Committees in the House and the Senate are each filled with congressmen and women who are from districts that benefit from keeping the status quo and who receive plenty of donations from agribusiness. In the 2012 election cycle, members of the House Ag committee have collectively taken in $3.7 million in contributions from agribusiness. For comparison, their next biggest donor was the communications industry, which gave them a mere $834,600 in donations. The Senate side is the same, receiving $9.5 million from agribusiness, making it also their largest group of donors.

Historically, some of the more monumental legislative victories for sustainable agriculture were accomplished only by bypassing the Ag Committee. For example, when Sen. Gaylord Nelson decided to introduce a bill to ban DDT, he had his staffer, Roger Blobaum, work to make absolutely sure that it would not go to the Agriculture Committee. "All legislation that had attempted to limit pesticide use had end up in the Ag Committee, and it was a graveyard," recalled Blobaum. Blobaum instead wrote the bill in such a way that it would go through the Interior Committee, which Nelson, the founder of Earth Day, led. More recently, the Ag Committee was an obstacle to establishing the National Organic Program. But for the farm bill, there's nowhere to go BUT the Ag Committee.

A Broken Congress

Even if the Agriculture Committee in each house were not such an obstacle, Congress itself is broken right now. Republicans want to accomplish nothing in Congress in order to deny Obama any successes he can claim in his re-election bid. What's more, Congress is required to cut the deficit any way it can and since Republicans utterly refuse to raise revenues, that means cutting spending. Anything that requires money is difficult to pass through Congress right now, even if it's something that is desirable and makes sense. And going into a farm bill debate knowing that you can't ask for much of anything that costs money is like going into a fight with one hand tied behind your back.

In another year, perhaps those who support sustainable agriculture could have said, "OK, we'll live with some parts of the bill we do not like, but how about a new grant program for organics, or some extra money for popular but underfunded conservation programs?" Last time around, there was a proposal that almost passed to cap subsidies at $250,000 per farm and many hoped Congress would apply the savings to conservation. The same idea is on the table once again -- and it might pass, since it so nearly did before -- but where will the money saved by it go? Probably to deficit reduction -- or in other words, nowhere.

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