10/20/2011 04:49 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2011

The Farm Bill Is a Food Bill

Every 5 to 7 years, the most important cluster of legislation to food in this country is debated and reauthorized in Congress. For the past three decades, this omnibus package has been referred to as the Farm Bill. Containing ten titles ranging from funding and regulation for conservation programs to commodity futures markets, the Farm Bill was last reauthorized in 2008 at the cost of $283.9 billion. Slated for reauthorization in 2012, the Farm Bill is on a fast track amongst the pressure mounted by the debt talks and its institutionalized enforcer, the Super Committee. Most recently, agriculture appropriation committee members have been working on compiling recommendations for submission to the super committee by the October 14th deadline. Whether or not the super committee itself can stay on schedule to avoid the sequestration process is another source of concern for policymakers.

In August, Senator Chuck Grassley warned of the ". . . possibility people who don't know anything about agricultural policy being on this 'super-committee.'" House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas similarly calls on the Super Committee to ". . . remember the farm bill is comprehensive and intertwined."

Let's take a step back a moment to consider the contents of the Farm Bill committee members are vying to keep intact through the appropriation process. Of the $283.9 billion appropriated in 2008, $188.3 billion went to just one of the ten titles --Nutrition. This title, which accounted then for two-thirds of the bill, and now estimated to occupy a 70 percent share, consists largely of funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (what as formerly known as Food Stamps), food and nutrition guidelines under the purview of the FDA and USDA, and school meal programs.

For all its focus on establishing a food safety net, this bill is hardly "comprehensive and intertwined" as Rep. Lucas would have us believe. For example, the USDA's golden rule for personal nutrition, MyPlate, suggests a relatively balanced share of fruits, vegetables, grains, proteins and dairy. But the commodities title of the Farm Bill, which provides direct payments in the form of subsidies to farmers, draws 15 percent of the bill's funds. The problems with direct payments are manifold, but the most paradoxical issue is that these payments actively thwart the nutritional goals set forth by the USDA. That's because the eligibility criteria for receiving these payments includes a provision to support staple crops -- defined to include "wheat, corn, grain sorghum, barley, oats, upland cotton, rice, soybeans, other oilseeds, and peanuts." Further, this criteria places express "limitations on planting fruits, vegetables, and wild rice."

Staple crops are not inherently unhealthy; they begin as healthy vegetables grown from the ground. In unhealthy harmony with the food industry, the overproduction of staple crops encourages their unhealthy use. Food policy critic Michael Pollan noted in The Omnivore's Dilemma that corn can be found in a quarter of all products at the grocery store and soybeans are found in 60 percent of all processed food. In these foods, corn and soybeans are reincarnated into their less healthier forms of high-fructose corn syrup and partially-hydrogenated soybean oil, respectively.

Not only are they used frequently to buffer unhealthy products, these products cost less than their healthier alternatives. In a frequently-cited study done by Adam Drewnowski of the University of Washington, energy dense foods (what you and I would call junk foods) composed of sugars, added fats and refined grains were found to be cheaper than healthier foods. This study confirms our common-sense intuitions about purchasing foods -- it's too expensive to eat well. If you need to consume a certain amount of calories to live, of course you'll prefer to buy the calorie-laden bag of chips for less than half the cost of a calorically-barren head of cabbage or salad mix.

Where the farm bill allocates resources to funding food stamps on one hand, it also incentivizes the purchase of unhealthy foods. In the most recent farm bill updates, it appears as though the back-room appropriations are moving in the favor of subsidies. While both direct payment programs and nutrition programs are looking at cuts, a mechanism for replacing subsidy cuts with a new funding regime has already surfaced. Unfortunately for the food side of the farm bill, it's become increasingly difficult to advocate for change. In the past, the farm bill has been traditionally held to industry interests. Now, the super committee process may shut out democratic input altogether if the bill is written in the coming weeks by a handful of legislators for the purpose of bypassing floor debate.

Because the farm bill is so rarely written, it becomes important to reclaim its status as a food bill. Even if parts of the package are at odds with the part of the bill that works to create a healthy food system, the latter still comprises 70 percent of the legislation. It remains to be seen whether the super committee process will allow some food for thought.