A farm bill divided

by Robbin Johnson
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Abraham Lincoln famously declared that “a house divided against itself cannot long stand.” To some, that is the lesson to be drawn from the current farm bill impasse — that the food production side (commodity programs) should not be separated from the food consumption side (nutrition programs).

That is probably true in determining whether this farm bill will pass, but it also is probably too narrow a conclusion to be drawn. America faces some difficult choices about “entitlement” programs (including the commodity and nutrition components of farm legislation), and the food sector broadly conceived seems ill-prepared to define or advance its legitimate interests in that debate. The agenda of issues increasingly is being shaped by critics, and the commercial sector lacks a shared vision of what to seek.

The critics’ agenda
Under such unflattering rubrics as “industrial agriculture” of “factory farming,” critics blame the U.S. agricultural system for polluting surface and underground water supplies, accelerating climate change, driving an obesity epidemic, ignoring animal welfare, poisoning people with pesticides and genetic manipulations, being reckless with food borne pathogens and antibiotics and de-stabilizing rural communities through concentration, migrant workers and low wages. More could be added to this litany, but the essential point is that the existing agricultural system is under attack from many quarters.

There are answers to these charges, and there are changes that may be adopted where the claims have validity. But commercial agriculture’s responses are “siloed” (i.e., each segment defends only itself, sometimes by shifting blame to other segments), self-serving (i.e., framed in terms of what is good for farmers or agribusiness rather than society at large) and suspect (i.e., coming from obvious vested interests). Unless a more thoughtful response from the commercial food system is developed, future policy decisions are going to be imposed on it rather than crafted to sustain and improve it.

A more constructive response from the commercial food system is in its own best interests. Getting there, however, will require a broader vision, stronger leadership within the sector and more principled engagement with its critics. What might such an approach entail?

Broader vision
Spending on entitlement programs must be curtailed, given changing demographics, slowing economic growth and new priorities. That means doing more on both the farm and food policy fronts with fewer public resources. For the agricultural sector, that inevitably means shifting the individual income and risk insurance activities of current public programs to private risk management schemes. The fewer public dollars available would be better spent on public goods benefitting the commercial food system as a whole.

The broad outlines of such a vision for public support probably needs to rest on three pillars. For the farming sector, one must be infrastructure improvements and research funding to ensure the global competitiveness of America’s farms. A second pillar would advance the idea of “sustainable intensification,” meeting the challenge of producing more with less environmental stress. The third pillar should center on rural development — both diversifying and invigorating rural communities’ economies through strategic investments in public goods serving them.

For the food and nutrition sector, a broader vision also could be constructed on three pillars. One certainly must be food security for all Americans, both as a humane impulse and as a sound investment in better health and more productive individuals in school, work and life. A second theme would need to center on better nutrition; both malnutrition and obesity are elements of this challenge, alongside other social factors that affect wellness. A third pillar should center on food safety. The commercial food system has much to gain from a comprehensive strategy to reduce food borne pathogens and related animal and human health risks.

Leadership and engagement
These — or similar — elements of a broader vision for American food and farm policy can only develop through a more concerted and comprehensive effort than exists today. Currently, farmers, input suppliers, handlers, processors, manufacturers and retailers each look at and defend only their own slice of the food supply chain. Three problems result.

First, parochialism prevails over more encompassing solutions; piecemeal answers no longer fit the highly integrated supply chains of the future. Second, the interests of one sector may end up being pitted against interests of other sectors, leaving all of them vulnerable to shifting blame at best and “divide and conquer” tactics at worst. Finally, the task of envisioning the future of the farm and food system is turned over to its critics; their views often reflect anecdotal rather than systematic thinking, but the commercial sector has not established a credible foundation from which to present a sounder view.

Whether the current farm and nutrition measures will simply be briefly extended again or replaced with modified provisions cannot be known as this is written. Perhaps the more enduring lesson of current legislative struggles, however, is not how to restore the “logrolling” politics of rural votes for commodity programs and urban votes for feeding programs. Instead, the current impasse may be a wake-up call for developing a new, broader view of a food system for the 21st century.

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