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Can reforming the farm bill help change U.S. agriculture?

For decades, farm bills in the U.S. Congress have supported large-scale agriculture. But with the 2012 Farm Bill now up for debate, advocates say seismic shifts in the way the nation views food production may lead to new policies that tilt more toward local, sustainable agriculture.

More than ever, U.S. corn is king. Across the Midwest, farmers are expanding their corn acreage to take advantage of record high prices. More corn will be planted this year than any since World War II, with 94 million acres under cultivation, up from 78 million in 2006.

While the boom may be good for the farmer, it takes a steep toll on the environment. The planting is changing the countryside as farmers plow fencerow to fencerow, eliminating trees, land in conservation programs, and riparian areas. Meanwhile, cheap, federally subsidized corn is used to make high-fructose corn syrup, which is added to thousands of products and is implicated in many chronic illnesses that plague Americans. Experts say it’s an important factor in obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer.

All this riles Dan Imhoff to no end. A writer in Sonoma County, California, Imhoff is one of the activists leading the charge against agribusiness as usual. His primary tool? The 2012 Farm Bill, which is now being drafted in Congress. Environmentalists and public health advocates have battled special interests over the Farm Bill in the past, but this year, because of burgeoning interest in all things food, they believe the time to substantively change the nation’s food policy has arrived.

Imhoff, food journalist Michael Pollan, and others have scheduled teach-ins around the country to drum up support for changes to the bill. The Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture has sponsored a farmer fly-in to Washington, D.C., by predominately organic farmers to lobby for changes in the bill. Chellie Pingree, an organic farmer and Democratic member of Congress from Maine has, along with 68 co-sponsors, introduced The Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act, which they want included as a section of the new Farm Bill. The new provisions would tilt farm policies more toward local, sustainable agriculture. In addition, more than 100 public health groups are working on changes to the Farm Bill.

All this activity reflects the seismic shifts that have rocked the political landscape around agriculture since the last Farm Bill was passed in 2008. Pollan, Imhoff, and many others say that things at last seem propitious for real change in the nation’s system of industrialized agriculture.

“More and more people are beginning to realize where their food comes from, who their farmer is, and what he grows,” said reform advocate Richard Rominger, a former deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, former director of the California Department of Agriculture, and a family farmer near Davis, California. “That’s good. And it’s a good thing that more people are interested in the Farm Bill rather than just a few farmers and their lobbyists.”

Farming may not immediately come to mind as one of America’s biggest environmental issues, but it is, and that’s the prime interest of Imhoff, who has just published the second edition of his book, Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill. Farming and ranching are the largest single land use in the country — with 20 percent of the land used for crops and 26 percent for pasture and range — and the methods of large-scale agribusiness take a heavy toll.

“They are expanding into areas that shouldn’t be farmed,” Imhoff says. “It’s encouraging erosion and heavy pesticide and herbicide use. They are plowing right up to their back door. It’s turning the whole Midwest into a cornfield. And the crazy thing is we aren’t eating [much of] it, we are feeding it to cattle or making it into fuel.”

The world’s largest ocean dead zone — an area the size of New Jersey devoid of aquatic life — is in the Gulf of Mexico. The leading causes are the synthetic nitrogen and phosphorous used to fertilize corn and soybeans in the Midwest, and animal waste, which runs off fields to the Mississippi River and on to the Gulf. Meanwhile, the Ogallala Aquifer — the sprawling underground reservoir of fresh water that stretches from South Dakota to Texas — has been significantly depleted, largely because of the Corn Belt’s unquenchable thirst. Herbicides and pesticides mix with water that percolates back into the aquifer.

A study released earlier this year says the planting of insecticide-coated seed corn may be one of the main culprits in Colony Collapse Disorder, the mass die-off of bees. And industrialized agriculture is an important contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. If alternative methods were adopted, however, they could become part of the solution.

If you want to reform this upside-down food system, “you can’t ignore the Farm Bill, for it’s where the decisions are made,” says Pollan, the author who laid bare the workings of the corn industry in his bestselling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. As the bill is usually written “it doesn’t push it in the direction it needs to go, to become more sustainable.”

The obtuse, acronym-laden, nearly 2,000-page Farm Bill comes up for renewal every five to seven years, and for decades was written by special interests and farm-state politicians, with very little public input. This despite the fact that it is an expensive piece of legislation with wide ramifications: The proposed bill — if, indeed, it passes this election year — may cost $265 billion over five years. [Some two-thirds of the spending in the bill would go to food and nutrition programs, such as food stamps; 22 percent would go to supporting commodity crops, including corn; and 9 percent would go to conservation programs.]

One of the top conservation programs is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, designed to offer farmers financial and technical help to improve the environmental conditions on their farms. Another initiative, the Conservation Reserve Program, pays farmers to idle some of their crop acreage to increase wildlife habitat and prevent erosion.

Pollan, Imhoff, and other reformers believe that more people than ever want to make farming more sustainable, and want more money from the Farm Bill to nurture responsible agriculture. When Pollan gives a talk on college campuses or at other venues around the country these days, it’s not unusual to have hundreds of people turn out. In the last few years, people have realized not only do they subsidize large-scale farming directly through taxpayer subsidies, but also indirectly through health care costs and damage to the environment.

Until the last Farm Bill, for example, organic farming received just $3 million a year for research. The 2008 Farm Bill raised it to $20 million, but that is still miniscule compared to the $307 billion total funding of that bill. Corn subsidies alone amounted to some $80 billion between 1995 and 2010, according to the Environmental Working Group, a pro-reform non-profit.

“There’s always progressive things that promote local food and farm-to-school programs, or vouchers for produce,” in the Farm Bill, says Pollan. “But they are crumbs compared to the commodity subsidies. They don’t add up to a billion dollars.”

Rep. Pingree’s bill seeks to change some of the priorities to favor sustainable farms. Pingree is herself an organic farmer on Penobscot Bay in Maine, where she grows vegetables, meat, and eggs, much of it used for meals at her inn, Nebo Lodge. Her bill would make it easier for small farms to get loans, help new farmers begin farming, provide more research for organic crops, and provide farmers with funding as they transition from conventional agriculture to organic. It would also expand conservation programs. An emphasis on local farms would also reduce the fuel costs and carbon emissions associated with trucking or flying food around the world.

“It’s about more sustainable farming practices,” Pingree says. Local family farms “are not going to be a 12,000-acre expanse of land. This is going to encourage something that’s already happening out there — local, small-scale farms.”

Meanwhile, there is a move afoot to reduce direct payments to farmers, which former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Romenger believes should be the first order of business. Direct payments are a check written to commodity farmers simply for farming, no matter what price they receive for their crop. In 2010, an estimated $4 billion to $6 billion was paid out, according to calculations by different agencies and groups. The program is widely criticized and, in a time of budget cutbacks and high grain prices, likely to shrink. Some of the money, Pingree says, could go to farmers of fruits and vegetable, which don’t qualify for direct payments, or to fund conservation programs, which often are the first to experience funding cuts.

Farm organizations are watching the growing interest in their industry with pride and concern. Dale Moore, deputy executive director for the American Farm Bureau, contends that the blame laid at agriculture’s doorstep for environmental problems is overblown. “Every producer I visit with says, ‘I’ve got to take care of my soil or my cattle, not just this year but year after year,’” he says. “If they don’t, they won’t be in business because Mother Nature will take them out.” Where problems such as nutrient overload exist, farmers are “leading the way in the recovery process,” Moore says.

“It’s not that we shouldn’t support farmers,” at all, says Imhoff. “We should. But they have a social obligation. We need robust habitat protection plans for a healthy rural environment — with clean water, healthy soil, and wildlife habitat.”

One of the innovative 2008 farm bill conservation programs that has gained support from environmentalists, ranchers, and biologists is the Sage Grouse Initiative. A ground bird with an unusual, showy courtship ritual, sage grouse live in the sagebrush ecosystem of the West. Once, 16 million existed in the U.S., but they now number about 200,000 and are declining, victims of farming, ranching, housing, and energy development. The birds appeared destined for an endangered species designation. But state and federal officials, worried about the political ramifications of a listing, came up with a novel, science-based plan to rush tens millions of dollars in federal Farm Bill funding for habitat protection and enhancement on private farms and ranches. Ranchers will get funding to make improvements on their land, as long as they meet the goal of recovering the birds. The scope and aggressive nature of the plan has impressed environmentalists and politicians, but it’s still too early to assess the results.

With a little help from a reformed Farm Bill, similar initiatives could spread, advocates say.

“Millions of people are waking up to the fact that the food system is in trouble,” says Imhoff. “More people are engaged than ever. They realize what’s at stake.”

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