by Sam Mitchell
Around these parts, a healthy mix of policy, politics, and punditry is as much a part of a balanced meal as protein, vegetables, and starch. I hope you’re hungry, because you’re about to get your fill of all three, wrapped up in a colossal–and colossally important–piece of federal legislation known as the Farm Bill.
As is the case every five years, the Farm Bill is up for reauthorization this year, with its latest iteration scheduled to expire in September. The bill is an extremely complicated mixture of programs, all of which impact the way Americans produce and consume food in varying and often inscrutable ways. Accordingly, the debate over the bill is riddled with misinformation and confusion, and serves to further cloud an already muddled issue.
This is the first in a series of posts that will attempt to synthesize the most important aspects of the debate over the 2012 Farm Bill and present them in a digestible way to people who care about promoting local, sustainable agriculture.
Unfortunately, the solutions to some of our food system’s most serious problems are not as simple as we would like them to be. Even if we knew definitively how to structure our federal farm policies to elevate local, sustainable practices, the debate over the Farm Bill can’t ever be completely separated from the federal budget framework in which it is just one piece, or from the powerful political forces that too often dictate the policy-making process.
And, since that backdrop will be responsible for how the Farm Bill process unfolds over the next several months, it’s as good a place as any to start. First, it’s important to understand that the Farm Bill doesn’t exist in a fiscal vacuum; it’s part of a broader federal budget picture in which every dollar is the target of fierce competition.
The same is true of programs within the Farm Bill. It’s a fixed pot of money over which a wide range of constituencies–including environmental interests, traditional commodities producers, and reform-minded supporters of organic, regional farming–are forced to scrape and claw. Add into this mix the recent Tea Party-fueled hysteria over federal spending–in a Presidential election year, no less–and an already difficult fiscal dynamic becomes nearly intractable. The sharp regional divisions characteristic of federal farm policy and a divided Congress promise to make things even more fun.
And while all of these factors suggest that passing a Farm Bill in 2012 is at best an uphill battle, for a variety of wonky budgetary reasons, there is likely to be far less money to go around in 2013, increasing the pressure to get something done this year.
Now imagine trying to have a rational debate over the future of farm policy in this environment.
As daunting as that may seem, it’s exactly what we’ll try to do in this space in the weeks and months to come. Finding room on our plates for all of these moving pieces will be a challenge, but it’s imperative if we’re to understand why and how important decisions are made, and how advocates of sustainable farming can best focus their advocacy efforts. So pull up a seat, and get ready to dig in.
Sam Mitchell is a freelance food writer. He previously worked in politics–both in the U.S. Senate and at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services–before leaving to attend culinary school, during which he worked as a line cook at Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, DC. Sam’s writing spans the food spectrum, focusing on the fundamentals and simple pleasures of preparing good food at home, as well as on the broader political, economic, and cultural implications of the way people produce and consume food. Visit him on his website and twitter.