America’s history includes a rich tradition of agricultural productivity, and we have all benefited from it. Agricultural laws and policies have supported that productivity, recognizing the special attributes of agricultural production and the public interest involved in promoting food security.
Along the way, however, public interest has often taken a back seat to special interest. Farm policy has driven food policy, and farmers have been encouraged to farm in ways that are not sustainable, sometimes producing crops that do not contribute to our health, preserve our environment, or strengthen our regional economies.
It’s time for a reconsideration of U.S. agricultural policy. The seemingly unrelated problems of deficit spending, the obesity epidemic, environmental degradation, poverty, and rural decline should all be considerations when crafting agricultural policy going forward. These problems highlight a critical connection—one that we too often forget—between agricultural policy and our need for a sustainable food system.
For many years, our farm policy has been focused on providing economic and political support for the agricultural sector. It has included financial support and special treatment under the law, termed, “agricultural exceptionalism.” It is time for both to be reconsidered, with an eye toward a policy that reconciles the public good of society with the self-interest of farmers.
Concerns about the U.S. budget deficit call for an analysis of all aspects of government spending. We need to make conscious, transparent decisions to spend federal tax dollars wisely. Discussions of a 2012 farm bill will give Congress the opportunity to apply this common sense approach to farm policy. Too often in the past, farm bill spending has been negotiated by various interest groups, each seeking as large a share of the farm bill pie as their political power could get them. Now is the time for Congress to step back and consider our farm policy in a strategic way, considering its impact on our overall food system.
Consider food assistance programs. They provide critical benefits for those below the poverty line, but they also provide economic support to local communities and to the food industry. It is estimated that food stamps added nearly $5 billion to the national economy in 2009, much spent in local grocery stores. Similarly, healthy food initiatives can provide long term benefits in better personal health, lower medical costs, and the result is a healthier economy.
Economic support for farmers must meet the same type of win-win financial benefit. When farmers receive economic support, it should be for farming that provides societal benefits in addition to support for individual participants. Healthy foods, the development of strong regional food systems, and environmental protection are all goals that should be considered in the development of a new federal farm program. Debates should not simply be between commodity groups, e.g., corn growers vs. cotton growers. Federal dollars should be spent wisely to obtain the maximum benefit to society. And, where financial support is not needed or does not have broader benefit, it should be withdrawn.
Concerns about declining overall health in U.S. children and the looming health problems associated with obesity also call for serious reflection. Policy makers need to give careful consideration to the ways in which federal farm policy can be linked to obesity, and they must be thoughtful in crafting policies that help solve rather than contribute to the problem.
Now is a time for reconsideration and for the development of a sound, sustainable farm policy that supports a healthy, sustainable food system.
This post is based on Schneider’s article, A Reconsideration of Agricultural Law: A Call for the Law of Food, Farming, and Sustainability, published in the William & Mary Journal of Environmental Law & Policy.
Schneider teaches agricultural and food law courses and serves as the Director of the LL.M. Program in Agricultural & Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law. She is author of the case book, Food, Farming & Sustainability: Readings in Agricultural Law.