Science and the Farm Bill

People seem generally interested in books and discussions about food, but less interested in books and discussions about how food is made. Of course, this is changing in recent years, perhaps because the visibility of sustainable practices, GMOs, and other biotechnological and genetically engineered food issues has made such matters part of a global debate. The 2007 Farm Bill in congress has elicited a good deal of interest this year - generally, it does not - perhaps because it touches on both parts of the equation: on the food we eat (the end product) and how food is made (the practices and lives of of farmers and growers, of agriculturalists).


Image credited to Victoria Birkinshaw for The New York Times, from this article

As Bora (over at A Blog Around the Clock) has discussed frequently, and Enrique, at Commonground, and a slew of other bloggers -- including us (Pollan; Corn's Consequences; and Eat Local) -- farming and science are common topics. I should add that my own academic work has focused on the (19th century) cultural basis for agricultural science and the conceptual developments that made dirt into a scientific object. (This is something, incidentally--this definition of an entity as a scientific object--that PZ takes for granted by assuming everything which exists is a scientific object). So, for those reasons too the new Farm Bill has been of great interest around here.

As Intern Laura noted in our weekly meeting, and we expanded upon, we can see the relationship between farming and science in at least these ecological ways:

1. crop growth practices affect biodiversity, water use, and environmental health--locally and nationally;
2. chemical usage on crops in the form of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers has severe environmental consequences, the degree of which we need not elaborate here;
3. decisions about genetically modifying seeds, the role such seeds will play following genetic drift in coming years and decades, and the concomitant issues of control and power between agri-business and local farmers, have ramifications for all of us;
4. crop shipment, to, from and across America, affects our use of fossil fuels and output of greenhouse gases; and
5. food eating habits by Americans have an affect on future personal and public health issues, as in, what diseases they will face in the future.

The 2007 farm bill is currently making its way through the legislative process. It's possible that not since Earl Butz's Nixon-era "Get Big or Get Out" policy has farming and agriculture legislation taken on such importance. (Getting big meant that productivity became the measure of farming success, over any other single factor.) Now, for those reading too quickly, I don't actually mean the "not since then..." part entirely (don't forget Willie Nelson). But that's the kind of rhetoric one hears with these new proposals, and when subsidies and food stamps and conservation and land use problems are at the forefront of the debate, then it probably deserves even more public attention than it's getting.

Laura also asks us to think about what things are not likely to result from the farm bill. Among them are these important issues:
1. An indication of where the food is coming from (even if it's from another country)--food origins on consumables are not required.
2. An incentive for anyone to grow food that will be eaten locally (or eat food grown locally).
3. An incentives for food to be grown in an ecologically sustainable manner.
4. An incentive for fair trade of food internationally (and as every scientist knows, you should always play nice with reagents)

So we find that the Farm Bill is an excellent example of a scientific-political issue. How we grow and use our food isn't something we think much about, but it has an enormous impact on the resources we have available for other things (from NIH budgets to land for conservation). It is at once, and always, essentially political and scientific.

For more, check out this rundown in the Times; this overview at Watershed Media; Barbara Kingsolver's essay on the Farm Bill and her recent book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (about her family's year eating only within their local foodshed, here in Virginia); and even the Heritage Foundation's expectedly anti-tax report; and this article about Surviving without Subsidies (in New Zealand).

*This post written with Laura Arneson.

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This isn't directly relevant to the current farm bill, but I thought I'd toss it out anyway.

For the last quarter century, I've believed that the single most important environmental issue we face is the huge swaths of land devoted to agricultural production, using techniques that were pioneered about 10 thousand years ago. In absolute terms, no other human activity comes even close to destroying the amount of natural habitat that is lost to agriculture.

I think that the only environmentally responsible way to grow food for our burgeoning human population is to start building vertical farms that use closed system agricultural techniques. This is how to minimize the surface area of the planet devoted to agriculture, while also minimizing (if not eliminating) the need for pesticides, and minimizing the potential for unintended gene flow. It also would make it possible to locate agricultural production in the heart of urban centers so consumers could have freshly picked, ripe produce that hasn't been transported thousands of miles.

But first we need to get over that 10 thousand years of tradition.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 04 Aug 2007 #permalink

Thanks, Bob, for sharing that important insight about the consequences of our culture of growth. Although it may feel like we've built up some cultural inertia during agri-culture's ten thousand year history, we're fortunate to have many more tens of thousands of years of human history from which to draw examples of a working green ethos, as Dr. Free-Ride described it.

Thanks, also, to the World's Fair team for bringing attention to these issues with their usual insightful analysis.