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Dan Imhoff and Michael Dimock, Los Angeles, column: America needs a farm bill that works

By Dan Imhoff and Michael Dimock LOS ANGELES -- In 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the very first farm bill, he told the nation that "an unprecedented condition calls for the trial of new means to rescue agriculture." That legis...

By Dan Imhoff and Michael Dimock

LOS ANGELES -- In 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the very first farm bill, he told the nation that "an unprecedented condition calls for the trial of new means to rescue agriculture."

That legislation, passed as the country struggled to emerge from the Depression, was visionary in the way it used farm policy to address significant national issues, including rural poverty and hunger.

It may not seem obvious while standing in the aisles of a modern grocery store, but the country today faces another food and farming crisis. Forty-six million people -- that is, one out of seven Americans -- signed up for food stamps in 2012. Despite some of the highest commodity prices in history, the nation's rural regions are falling deeper into poverty.

Unemployment in Fresno County, the nation's top agricultural producing county, stood at 17.4 percent in March of this year. And industrial agriculture has become a leading cause of soil and water pollution.


After 80 years, the time has come to rescue agriculture from the farm bill -- and to improve the health of Americans in the bargain.

Many food access and healthcare advocates, family farm organizations, sustainable agriculture nonprofits and even local governments are calling for reform as Congress works to draft legislation to replace the 2008 farm bill.

But the U.S. Senate's first draft of the omnibus legislation -- which will be debated over the next few weeks -- falls short.

The draft legislation makes it clear that the farm bill remains in the control of powerful agribusiness interests and anti-hunger advocates whose thinking is rooted in the last century. It would continue to disproportionately favor huge operators who have blanketed the land with monocultures.

This year's farm bill will allocate somewhere in the range of $100 billion a year, enough money to target such challenges as the obesity epidemic, water pollution and the need to usher in a new generation of farmers. But that would require at least four fundamental shifts.

** Supporting food, not feed. Crop subsidies and federal insurance should be aimed at the foods humans should eat. Currently, the lion's share of subsidies goes to commodity crops used to feed livestock or to produce ethanol.

A shift in what is subsidized should be accompanied by changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to include incentive programs for fruit and vegetable purchases that would help Americans avoid diet-related disease.

Shifting federal dollars from commodities to nutritious foods could save the nation trillions of dollars in health costs in the decades ahead.


** Focusing on safeguarding the land. As with the original farm bill, government investments in agriculture should promote conservation and good stewardship.

The new legislation should shift billions of dollars from subsidies and insurance discounts to conservation programs.

** Adding labor to the equation. The farm bill desperately needs a labor policy. Six million farmworkers do the backbreaking work of putting food on America's tables, yet there is no portion of the 1,000-page farm bill that explicitly addresses their need for protection from exploitation.

Immigration policy has to be part of the discussion too, since an estimated half of the nation's agricultural workers are undocumented immigrants.

** Increasing research. The farm bill is the nation's largest source of funding for agriculture and food research, and at present that's not enough.

This portion of the bill should be greatly expanded with an emphasis on helping food producers and businesses discover and implement solutions to climate change, water scarcity, species degradation, hunger and obesity.

If the public won't pay for research that serves us all, corporations will pay for research that serves only them. At that point, we are in danger of losing control of our food system.

Today's concentrated ownership of seed patents justifies this concern.


Every five years or so, the farm bill's renewal presents a tremendous opportunity. In the past, we have often squandered the chance to use it to prepare for a world with more people, less oil, an unpredictable climate and numerous resource challenges. This time, let's get it right.

Imhoff is the author of "Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill." Dimock is president of Roots of Change and chairman emeritus of Slow Food USA. They wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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