Farm Bill food fight

Living on Earth
The World
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts ? this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood. Money might not grow on trees, but you'll find plenty in fields. The new 307 billion dollar federal farm bill includes 43 billion dollars in crop subsidies ? this at a time when farmers are receiving record prices for what they grow. That's one reason President Bush vetoed the bill, but it's veto-proof; it has overwhelming support in Congress. But the president isn't the only critic, and Daniel Imhoff details many of their complaints in his book "Food Fight: A Citizen's Guide to a Food and Farm Bill." Daniel Imhoff joins me from a studio at KWMU in St Louis. Dan, welcome! IMHOFF: Thanks for having me. GELLERMAN: This is a monster of a bill. IMHOFF: Yea. It's more like a black hole. It's dealing with everything from nutrition to what we grow and how we manage it, to conservation, even racehorse breeding in Kentucky. GELLERMAN: Well you found plenty to criticize in the bill in your book, and you joined The New York Times, which criticizes it; George Bush when he vetoed it, called it a "bloated bill"; the Secretary of Agriculture says it's reckless spending; overseas writers have said it's outrageous. What's wrong with the Farm Bill? IMHOFF: I think what's obviously wrong to most people is that it's been really hi-jacked by huge agribusinesses. We're focusing on a very narrow range of crops ? corn, cotton, wheat, rice, soybeans, sugar, milk ? much of these commodities are produced in these huge, huge industrial operations, and much of these commodities also aren't really directly eaten by people, but rather they're fed to cattle, they're made into ethanol, they're made into all kinds of food-processing additives or refined flours and sugars and oils that are actually contributing to a nutritional crisis. GELLERMAN: Well, the food stamps and other nutrition programs ? domestic programs ? do get the lion's share of the money, about 70 percent, right? IMHOFF: They do. And I really think it's time for us to ask the question whether or not we can really develop sound farm policy while we debate nutrition policy at the same time. GELLERMAN: So, you think we should have two bills ? a farm bill and a food bill? IMHOFF: I think if we had two bills, there would be a lot less of the horse-trading that goes on and perhaps a lot more time for reflection to see, you know, where are the public benefits in these programs? What are the goals that we have for agriculture moving forward? GELLERMAN: Well, you mentioned horse-trading. Some of the subsidies do go to racehorses in Kentucky. There're also, what, some money in there to prevent puppies from being imported from overseas. IMHOFF: You know, I have not heard about the puppies (laughs), but, you know, nothing surprises me. In order to get this bill, you know, just a huge number of earmarks, pork projects, are brought home, and you have to really ask the question, is it responsible to pass a bill about agriculture which deals with racehorses? GELLERMAN: Hmm. Well this bill was touted by many as being reform. Are we getting our money's worth, you think? IMHOFF: No, no. I think we have a Congress asleep at the wheel. If we really had a much broader vision for our food and agriculture system, we could really use the 307 billion dollars to create something much better than we have right now. And, you know, I think, if you look back, you can't underestimate the amount of money that, of the agribusiness lobby that influences and writes policy. GELLERMAN: So, what does the veto mean now, though? IMHOFF: I just think it's posturing and it's really just a statement to appease certain constituents who want President Bush to take a really hard line on spending. The administration has a lot of chances to come to the table, and if they were very serious about the changes that they were trying to recommend with eligibility requirements, spending caps, true reductions in the commodity title, we would have had them. GELLERMAN: I wonder ? it's 673 pages long. You think anybody reads the whole thing? IMHOFF: It's not only that long; it's constantly in flux. The important thing to remember about this bill is that this is just stage one ? this is when the promises are made. And then every year for the next four to five years, as it's time to appropriate, to either fund or not fund programs that have been promised, then further decisions are made and further legislation takes place. So even though you might be promised a certain amount of money for, you know, farmers' markets expansion or organic research, there's almost no guarantee that you're gonna get it in the long run, unless the appropriators honor those promises and don't give them for something else. And history shows that normally those, those projects, those programs with the most public benefit ? conservation, value-added processing, rural development ? get cut, while the commodities supports stay in place or are even increased. GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Imhoff, thank you so very much. IMHOFF: I really appreciate your time.