The entire area of the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska, totals nearly 2.3 billion acres. Land used for agricultural purposes constitutes a 52 percent majority of that total. That is reason enough why the federal Farm Bill, as much as any other single piece of legislation, has a direct impact on each of us. In determining how the majority of our land is managed, the Farm Bill further determines the predominate products and ultimate sustainability of our food system.
The Farm Bill-debated and re-authorized about every five years-contains fifteen sections that set policy for such things as crop production, trade, forestry, nutrition assistance and natural resources conservation. In setting the farm, food and rural policy goals and priorities for our country, the Farm Bill has a tremendous impact on how food is grown, what kinds of foods are grown, who is able to participate in growing them and who is able to eat them. In short, the outcome of the Farm Bill debate is of great environmental and social justice significance, not to mention being vital to our current and future nutrition and public health as a nation. The legislation is broad, affecting the availability of food stamps for low income families, economic development in rural areas, efforts to conserve our soil, rivers and forests and government support to the people who grow and harvest our food. Though titled a “Farm” bill, this piece of legislation affects every American whether living in a rural community or big city.
In annual budget terms, Farm Bill spending is ten times what taxpayers provide the U.S. Department of the Interior, an agency more recognized for natural resources oversight. However, conservation is key to productive agriculture and effective farm law. Conserving and enhancing soil health, water quality and habitat is the foundation of a sustainable food supply and healthy environment, two inseparable elements of our collective wellbeing. What’s more, research shows that conservation also drives economic health. Paying producers to take marginal/sensitive land out of production is a good thing, but it also clearly illustrates federal policy at cross-purposes: farmers are subsidized to produce as much crop as possible (a strong incentive to expand production on any and all land), while at the same time the federal government is bidding against itself to subsidize farmers to take land out of production. The impact is felt by all-in terms of threatened and abused soil and water resources, as well as competing and upward cycling federal expenditures.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that improved natural amenities that result from conservation programs-including functioning wetlands, pleasant landscapes and opportunities for outdoor recreation-produce economic vitality. Quoting the Department, “Natural amenities are highly correlated with population and employment growth-they even shape agriculture… farm numbers are up in high-amenity rural counties and down in low-amenity counties.”
The importance of conservation in the federal Farm Bill has been measured in other terms as well. For instance, without Farm Bill conservation programs, we would have:
- 48 million more tons of carbon dioxide
- 450 million tons of topsoil lost every year
- 170,000 miles of unprotected streams
- 40 million fewer acres of wildlife habitat
- 2.2 million fewer ducks
As citizens and a society much impacted by the Farm Bill, we must recognize the unique potential, power and purpose in conserving natural resources in agriculture. Farm families, rural economies and all citizens can benefit from a system in which tax dollars are spent based on how well soil, water and wildlife habitat are improved, rather than how much of a particular grain is grown.
The 2007 Farm Bill: Stewardship, Prosperity, and Fairness, by Izaak Walton League of America, iwla.org/publications/agriculture/Farm_Bill_2007_WEB.pdf
Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill, by Daniel Imhoff, Watershed Media, 2007.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, by Michael Pollan, Penguin, 2006.