The Frontal Cortex

The Farm Bill

If I were a philosopher-king, the first thing I’d do is make Michael Pollan Secretary of Agriculture. Sometimes, he makes so much sense it actually hurts. In a Times op-ed yesterday, he assailed the latest version of the Farm Bill making their way through Congress. Although the bill contains essential money for food stamp programs, wetland restoration and local farms, Pollan rightly notes that these programs “are mere fleas on the elephant in the room”:

The name of that elephant is the commodity title, the all-important subsidy section of the bill. It dictates the rules of the entire food system. As long as the commodity title remains untouched, the way we eat will remain unchanged.

The explanation for this is straightforward. We would not need all these nutrition programs if the commodity title didn’t do such a good job making junk food and fast food so ubiquitous and cheap. Food stamps are crucial, surely, but they will be spent on processed rather than real food as long as the commodity title makes calories of fat and sugar the best deal in the supermarket. We would not need all these conservation programs if the commodity title, by paying farmers by the bushel, didn’t encourage them to maximize production with agrochemicals and plant their farms with just one crop fence row to fence row.

What can ordinary citizens do? Write to your congressperson and tell them to support the Lugar-Lautenberg bill, which would scrap the current subsidy system and replace it with a form of “revenue insurance”. This would not only save the U.S. government nearly $20 billion a year but would help slow the growth of factory farms. As Pollan notes:

If the eaters and all the other “people on the outside” make themselves heard, we just might end up with something that looks less like a farm bill and more like the food bill a poorly fed America so badly needs.


  1. #1 justawriter
    November 5, 2007

    More a paean to ignorance than anything else. As someone who grew up on a farm and became a farm journalist for many years it is hard to know where to start. How about how he quotes numbers showing the commodity programs are only 1/8th of the farm bill budget, yet everything else is “just the flea on the elephant.”? Or that in a country as large as the United States, it isn’t unusual for there to be multiple ag disasters in consecutive years? Or that this year’s worst disaster is a drought in Georgia, Alabama and Florida – far from his “drought prone midwest”? And really, does someone from California – home of fire, floods, earthquakes – really have any credibility criticizing people about disaster assistance? Then there is his unstated presumption that bread and rice are not “foods that people actually eat.” He also ignores the fact that between a third to half of gross farm receipts in the U.S. do go to fruit and vegetable producers despite only being grown on 3 percent of the countries cropland. Diverting even a tiny fraction of grain production to vegetables would so overwhelm the markets for those crops that it would be impossible to make a living growing them.

    It goes back to the old saying, every difficult problem has a solution that is simple, direct and wrong.

  2. #2 John
    November 5, 2007

    In general: Grains are shipped in railroad cars and barges and stored in bins and silos. Fruits and vegetables are packed in little bags and boxes, express shipped, and stored in things like refrigerators and freezers. Fruits and vegetables are way more seasonal, perishable, and expensive per unit. Twinkies and potato chips will always contain cheaper calories than blueberries or carrots. Will poorly fed Americans eat better if a farm bill is changed?

  3. #3 ryanbeed
    November 6, 2007

    You always get more of what you subsidize. We’ve set it up so that all americans pay for corn whether they use it or not. Of course we put it in everything. Change the subsidies, change the behaviors.

    Of course we can have discussions about what we want to subsidize, and we all have our own ideas. I happen to like sugar (rather then corn syrup), grass fed cattle, pastured poultry, and fruit. And I know that it’s important that we keep growing staples, but I do feel like it’s wrong to prop up the industries that make it so easy to manufacture tasteless food. Anyway, in response to John above, less subsidies on sugar and corn will lead to increased prices on junk food which puts prices for real food closer to prices for junk. so, less junk eaten. We’re not in a position where we have to worry about our poor getting enough calories.

  4. #4 truth machine
    November 6, 2007

    he makes so much sense it actually hurts.

    Bad writing causes me pain — figuratively.

    Proust Was A Neuroscientist

    No, he wasn’t.

  5. #5 truth machine
    November 6, 2007

    If I were a philosopher-king, the first thing I’d do is make Michael Pollan Secretary of Agriculture.

    Lawrence J. Peter for President!

  6. #6 yol kesici bariyer
    March 7, 2009