At the heart of our food policy lie core issues such as national security, energy and the environment, and public health. We should pay attention.
Agriculture is possibly the most critical issue of our time. Our food system is increasingly vulnerable to complications created by risky farming practices, climate change, and instability in international markets. While the media covers sensational food stories such as Congress declaring pizza a vegetable or Michele Obama planting an 'organic' vegetable garden at the White House, the everyday American public does not typically scrutinize agriculture policy. Rarely are issues of agriculture featured in political debates, nor do politicians use it as an issue to court voters. While politicians and the media may not find it as spicy an issue as abortion or gay marriage, progressives need to make this our issue. We need to push our representatives to ensure that our tax dollars are spent on the foods that keep our kids healthy, promote practices that do not harm the environment, and enact policies that contribute to our long-term food security. Because sound agriculture policy leads to a safer country, a better environment, less energy use, a diminished role for big money, improved foreign policy, and a healthier citizenry.
1. National security: Agriculture plays a large role in our national security. More people than ever depend on fewer farmers for their food. As of 2009, the 285 million people living in the U.S. were fed by 960,000 farmers, meaning that well under 1 percent of the population supports the other 99.6 percent, while they also export their harvests around the globe. Our most basic necessity is concentrated in the hands of a few and entangled in international trade, leaving U.S. citizens and the world's ability to feed itself vulnerable to oscillations in the global marketplace, fluctuations in climate, and large-scale crop disease.
2. Environment: Agriculture, specifically industrial agriculture, has an immensely damaging impact on our environment and is one of the world's largest polluters, contaminating both air and water. Toxic pesticides and fertilizers leach into our waterways, destroying river ecosystems and contaminating our drinking water. Animal farms are major producers of green house gases such as methane, and animal waste products are also a major source of runoff that creates dead zones in rivers by providing algae with abundant nutrients, causing it to grow out of control and deplete the water of oxygen, killing fish and other organisms that we depend on for food.
3. Energy: Energy usage and creation is also a major aspect of the agriculture sector, particularly in industrial agriculture. Such agriculture is a very heavy user of fossil fuels both as fuel for its machinery and in the production of fertilizers and pesticides. A study by the University of Michigan in 2000 estimated that 10 percent of U.S. energy consumption is used by the food industry and 40 percent of that is used in creating fertilizers and pesticides alone. Agriculture also affects energy usage through the production of corn for ethanol. President Bush saw corn ethanol as a way to get off of foreign fuel, but the sad reality is that for every gallon of fossil fuel we use to make corn ethanol, we get a gallon or so of product, making it not worth the effort.
4. Big money: The inputs necessary for industrial agriculture require financing from big money, giving large corporations an upper hand and enabling them to harness large portions of the market. Monsanto, the big seed giant, is known for capitalizing on patented seeds and suing farmers whose fields have accidently been contaminated by their product. The other top two seed companies, Pioneer Hybrid (Dupont) and Syngenta, together with Monsanto, garner almost 50 percent of the market. Last month, farmers marched on Wall Street. "[F]ood has become a commodity that enriches a few at the expense of the many," wrote Kerry Trueman in her article about the protest. Large agriculture companies continue to control more and more of the market as they file lawsuits against small farmers, putting many out of business. Agriculture policy has greatly benefited such companies, as they have lobbied the government for subsidies and against regulating their risky patented and genetically altered seeds. They are pushing "the 99%" out of the farming business and ruining the livelihoods of family farmers across America and the world.
5. Foreign policy: Foreign aid also plays a huge role in global agricultural markets and in systems of farming around the globe. Our food aid program began when surpluses in the U.S. were high. President Eisenhower explained that program's aim was to "lay the basis for a permanent expansion of our exports of agricultural products with lasting benefits to ourselves and peoples of other lands." While food aid has saved many lives during emergencies, it has also flooded rural areas in poor countries with cheap or free food, which has undercut local farmers, thus creating a dependency on such aid. Now USAID is trying to rebuild the agriculture sector in many developing countries with the aim of making them self-sufficient. However, the practices USAID is trying to instill in farmers make them even more dependent on outside sources for their sustenance, as they are providing small farmers with costly inputs such as "improved seed," fertilizers, and pesticides. Farmers will eventually have to purchase all of these inputs every year without many government subsidies. Our farmers are able to afford these inputs as our government provides them with subsidies. Most governments in developing countries do not have the capacity to provide agricultural subsidies, especially to individual smallholder farmers, whom the USAID programs target. If such farmers have one bad season, they are left with no seeds, as the "improved" variety produces sterile seeds. The soil is left in poor condition, as the pesticides and fertilizers have killed many of the vital microbes that build soil nutrition. Many farmers, particularly in India, have committed suicide due to their lack of ability to feed their families.
6. Health: We are increasingly seeing public health issues in the U.S. involving obesity. Agriculture policy has played a huge role in creating this epidemic, as it influences which crops are grown. The food that receives subsidies has led to the abundance of cheap sugary and fatty foods, while fruits and vegetables receive few to no subsidies and as a result are more expensive. As of 2008, 34 percent of adults and 17 percent of children in the United States were considered overweight or obese, leading to an estimated health care cost of $147 billion annually. If Congress shifted some subsidies to fruits and vegetables, healthy foods might be more readily available and affordable for all Americans. Now that Michelle Obama has planted her garden, she should push for these changes in agriculture policy so that the rest of America can experience healthy food, like her and her family.
Those are just a few of the issues affected by agriculture policy. Progressives must care about the issues that involve our food system and look deeper into its incredible complexities.
Lauren Servin is a Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline Fellow focusing on agriculture policy and food security.