In the past ten years, as slogans like “Vote with your fork” and “Know thy farmer” have popped up on tote bags and bumper stickers, a new class of conscientious eater has slowly started to reshape the American food marketplace. A loose coalition of food progressives—from craft-beer hipsters and vegan environmentalists to urban farmers and What the Health devotees—has helped to bring new levels of attention to the social, environmental, and public health issues surrounding what we eat.
But while the cultural conversation has gained traction, federal food policy is virtually the same as it was a decade ago. Are American eaters finally ready to take our conscientious consumerism to the next level—by advocating for political change?
Earl Blumenauer, a Democratic Congressman from Oregon, sure hopes so.
Last week, at a news conference in Washington, D.C., Blumenauer introduced legislation intended to generate discussion ahead of one of next year’s big Congressional battles—the Farm Bill. An imposing, multi-year spending omnibus that establishes the government’s priorities on food-related issues from crop subsidies and international food aid to nutrition assistance and rural development, the farm bill—probably more than any other piece of legislation—determines what and how America eats. And yet it barely registers in the public consciousness. Changes to health care and the tax code might make front-page news, but the farm bill has historically been something the general public has been all to happy to ignore.
“I suspect that few citizens, let alone members of Congress, have the vaguest idea of what is in this bill and how it works in practice,” wrote the journalist and public health advocate Marion Nestle, in a Politico op-ed published last year. “Even lobbyists and congressional staff are likely to know only the pieces they are paid to understand. This is a shame, because the farm bill matters.”
The temptation to tune out is understandable. Most of us don’t participate directly in food production; the issues at stake are vast and complex; and a bevy of special interest groups typically lobby for pet causes, making an already challenging piece of legislation even more sprawling and bloated. But Blumenauer’s bill, “The Food and Farm Act,” seems to be an attempt to change the disaffected status quo. He’s pegged his “alternative farm bill” to issues that do tend to resonate—climate change, animal welfare, and access to healthy food.
“I think we have a unique opportunity to reshape the farm bill, that we’ve never had before,” Blumenauer said in October, during a Capitol Hill session reported by Politico. “It’s been impervious to reform in part because we really haven’t been able to coalesce the vast array of stakeholders who really don’t like what’s happening.”
The last farm bill passed in 2014, and the lion’s share of funding—$391 billion over five years, or about 80 percent of the total amount—went towards providing food assistance to low-income Americans under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps”). But the remaining 20 percent was largely geared towards taking the risk out of large-scale commodity agriculture through insurance subsidies. Blumenauer’s bill would make it easier for smaller-scale, diversified farmers—those who grow tomatoes and lettuce, not just the staple grain and soy crops traded on the global market—to receive some of the same incentives.
It’s a gambit that could appeal to both independent farmers and forward-thinking food aficionados—two key demographics of Blumenauer’s constituency. His district includes much of Portland, Oregon—the famously food-fixated city that, during last week’s press conference, he repeatedly called “Portlandia,” to mild, appreciative laughter—and the farmland that surrounds it.
Clad in clear spectacles, a bowtie, and a neon-green bicycle brooch, Blumenauer explained to a Hill crowd that included Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) that the existing bill, set to expire next year, wasn’t working for his constituents. Industrial agriculture, he said, doesn’t do much for eaters who appreciate where food comes from, and who care about how it impacts the environment. Nor does it do much for rural farmers whose midsize farms are being left behind.
Also present at the press conference was Michael Pollan, the journalist-cum-advocate best known as the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma—the 2006 best-seller that traced four meals back up the food chain, and helped jumpstart the farm-to-fork movement. In recent years, Pollan has used his considerable notoriety to point out the lack of headway progressive food issues have made on Capitol Hill.
“While the cultural consciousness around food has shifted, we haven’t made much progress changing things in Washington,” he told The New Food Economy’s Joe Fassler in 2016. “The real challenge now is to bring the fight from the consumer to the citizen: to get people to vote on food issues, to get people in Congress to vote for improvements to the food system.”
Last week’s event was an attempt to do just that. Using Twinkies and carrots as props, Pollan said the next farm bill didn’t have to be legislation beholden to bringing bucks to commodity crop districts. Instead, he said, it should be considered an environmental bill, and “the most important piece of health legislation” in next year’s Congress, citing the cheapness and availability of wheat, corn, and soybeans as causes of obesity and diabetes.
“This is an eater’s farm bill, and not a producer’s farm bill, only,” Pollan said. “I don’t think eaters think about the farm bill right now.”
He also reminded the audience of the role of the food system in climate change. Over 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the food production. Walmart’s biggest footprints are in the nitrogen fertilizers on cornfields. And so on. To fight that, Pollan said, the next farm bill should incentivize behavior that sequesters carbon in the soil, such as planting cover crops, livestock and crop rotations, and composting.
Aside from Pollan, Blumenauer had also convened representatives from environmental, animal welfare, food policy, and farming interest groups, right along with a fiscal conservative. And the sticking point for Ryan Alexander, president of the budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, it seemed, was crop insurance. It’s unrealistic, she said, to ask taxpayers to protect all that farm property, along with ensuring the overhead and profit of insurance companies. There should be some conditions for coverage, she said.
Meanwhile, Pollan asked: “Is it too much to ask farmers to take steps to care for their soil—to reduce the risk and moral hazard—by making their farms more resilient to climate change? In the same way you get a break on your life insurance policy if you stop smoking, couldn’t we give farmers a break if they planted cover crops?”
Which is part of what makes the bill so politically untenable: It’s pretty unforgiving to the big commodities with the lobbying budgets that gave us many of the most controversial subsidy policies in the first place. What’s the deep-pocketed trade group—National Corn Growers Association, for example—going to say about potentially eliminating the $694 million provided by the 2014 bill to support, among other things, ethanol production? What are politically powerful peanut growers—a major producer constituency in the South who count former president Jimmy Carter among them—going to say about the new bill’s explicit attack on a crop insurance “loophole” in their industry?
But this provocation may be part of the point. One reason the farm bill looks the way it does is because the public hasn’t been paying attention, making it easier for special interests to wrest control of federal incentives. But would a more engaged public really work to put subsidies for corn and soy production ahead of the kinds of measures addressed in Blumenauer’s alternative bill—environmental conservation requirements, increased access to fruits and vegetables through food stamps and school lunches, and more funding opportunities for regional food systems? Though the bill itself has virtually no chance of passing, the press conference—and the enlistment of a high-profile advocate like Pollan—serves to nudge the public in that direction.
“It’s an attempt, really, to invite people into the process, let them know that this is about them,” Pollan said. “The moment is here, it’s ripe, right now.”
Additional reporting by Claire Brown.