Some U.S. farmers are paid to leave their land wild; others are compensated when weather devastates their cultivated land. Still others receive money when crop prices drop -- all from the same federal funds set aside through the current Farm Bill.
To call it the "Farm Bill," however, is something of a misnomer. The federal government's primary agricultural and food policy legislation comprises hundreds of programs, which extend well beyond cows, corn and cotton to everything from food stamps and an array of environmental and public health safeguards.
"The totality is overwhelming. Nobody can grasp it," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. "This makes the Farm Bill profoundly undemocratic since the public -- and, I would maintain, congressional representatives -- cannot possibly understand it."
At least now the public and their representatives will have a bit more time to wrap their heads around the bill and all its implications. Earlier this month, to the relief of many advocates concerned about the lack of transparency and what they perceive as the undue influence of the industrial agriculture lobby, the congressional super committee failed to reach an agreement on future budget cuts. This means the legislation will follow the same, more open route that it has taken every four or five years since its debut in the 1930s.
The last edition came in 2008; the House and Senate are now expected to begin debating the next iteration in 2012.
"The Farm Bill is currently up for grabs and nobody knows what will happen with it now that the budget process collapsed," Nestle told HuffPost in an email.
For people not lucky enough to have enrolled in Nestle's Farm Bill-focused course at NYU this fall, tools are available to help decipher the massive legislation. (The 2008 version filled nearly 700 pages.) An interactive online application created by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's Center for a Livable Future, for example, demonstrates the relative sizes of the Farm Bill budget.
"We hope this makes it clearer how the pieces fit together," said Roni Neff, research and policy director at the center, who helped to build the visualizer "piece by piece," combining broader budget data from the 2008 bill with figures from the USDA.
Some of the colored rectangular chunks are noticeably smaller than others. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps) consumes about two-thirds of the budget -- necessitating a button for users to "hide SNAP so more budget items are visible" (as reflected in the screenshot below).
A few more clicks and it becomes apparent that the production of fruit and vegetables receive several-fold fewer funds than commodity grains and food animals. (The lightest color blocks represent programs that primarily address their production.)
"The Farm Bill could do a lot to bolster that spending," Neff noted.
And, according to some experts, promoting the production of fruits and vegetables would go a long way to reduce Americans' waistlines and hospital bills.
"If we judge by its impact on human health, the American food supply is a disaster," said Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health during a recent forum at Harvard. He's particularly frustrated with the quality of food used in the SNAP program: "mostly junk and soda," he said.
Dr. David Ludwig, a professor of pediatrics and nutrition at Harvard, suggested that humans evolved eating hundreds of different foodstuffs throughout the year, including a variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, grains and animals.
"We now have a massive number of products in our food supply," he said during the forum. And yet, he added, most are produced from the same four commodities: corn, wheat, soybeans, rice or the animals that are fed on those commodities.
Ludwig linked this "profound transformation of the diet" to agricultural policies that include farm subsidies via the Farm Bill that have made these inherently cheap crops "even cheaper" to produce. Meanwhile, he said, fruits, vegetables and other whole foods that are inherently more labor-intensive and expensive have become "relatively even more so."
This may at least partly explain the country's rising rates of obesity, heart disease and other chronic diseases. Ludwig cited an eight-year-old girl he had recently at the obesity clinic who weighed over 200 pounds, with high cholesterol and pre-diabetes. "And this is not genetic," he said, "it's dietary."
"Ultimately, we are going to need to rethink agricultural policy," he said, "if we're going to do anything about the obesity epidemic and the epidemic of diseases related to obesity in the United States."
Other experts emphasize a similar need for the Farm Bill to support sustainable agriculture.
Overdrawn aquifers, erosion and polluted surface and ground waters are just some of the consequences of conventional agriculture cited by experts.
And yet conservation programs are "very popular with farmers," noted David Degennaro, legislative and policy analyst at the Environmental Working Group. Unfortunately, he added, only one out of every three or four who apply are able to participate in the programs, which can mitigate the costs of projects such as installing fences to keep cows out of waterways or building terraces to prevent erosion.
"There is an imbalance between the big commodity industrial food system and the stewardship of the land and the rebuilding of local food infrastructure," added Dan Imhoff, co-founder of Watershed Media and author of the forthcoming book, "Food Fight: A Citizens Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill."
But Imhoff is hopeful that the food system can be revamped to boost the health of America's land and people, especially in light of the legislation's delay. "I can't say we're going to win, but I'm relieved this wasn't just rushed through without the discussion it deserves," he said.
This is the first in a series that will look at how the next Farm Bill could affect the food system, the environment and public health. Over the next couple weeks, HuffPost will discuss the key issues from nature conservation to food safety.
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