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A Sustainable Future Through the Farm Bill
March 04, 2012
USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan explains the complexities of the nation’s primary agricultural and food policy at GW forum.
By Jennifer Eder
As the U.S. Senate debates the nuts and bolts of the nation’s 2012 farm bill, the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration held a policy forum Thursday to discuss the crucial elements of the bill and its far-reaching impact on U.S. food production and environmental sustainability.
Keynote speaker Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said the bill must ensure the nation continues to have a safety net for farmers and rural communities as well as invest in school garden-based learning and support novice farmers.
The farm bill, which is passed by Congress every five years, funds nutrition assistance and conservation programs and provides government subsidies to farmers to supplement their income and help manage the supply and influence the cost of agriculture commodities. Although much of the buzz around the farm bill centers on the subsidies to farmers and commodity programs, the largest part of the overall funding – 72 percent – goes to nutrition assistance programs.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize that,” said Dr. Merrigan, who was appointed deputy secretary in 2009 and a year later was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine. “All members of Congress have an interest in the farm bill because of its diversity.”
The policy forum, which was held in the Jack Morton Auditorium and sponsored by the Trachtenberg School, the GW Office of Sustainability and the Trachtenberg Student Organization, included a panel of four sustainable agriculture experts moderated by Dan Glickman, Law School graduate and former USDA secretary in the Clinton administration.
“Today’s forum is a testament to the interest and involvement our students have in sustainability and food policy,” said Diane Robinson Knapp during her introductory remarks for Dr. Merrigan. Ms. Knapp is chair of GW’s Urban Food Task Force, which examines food policy, healthy eating and sustainable food practices on campus.
The task force’s initiatives have included making healthier and more sustainably produced food available on campus, supporting a student organization (the Food Justice Alliance) that operates an urban vegetable garden and partnering with Founding Farmers restaurant to provide locally sourced honey from bee hives on the roof of Lisner Hall.
Dan Simons, B.B.A. ’92, an alumnus of the GW School of Business and now concept developer and managing partner for Farmers Restaurant Group, which owns Founding Farmers, hosted a reception following the forum.
In 1920, 27 percent of all Americans farmed. By 1950, that number fell to 12 percent. Today, only 1 percent of Americans farm, and 30 percent of today’s farmers are 65 years old or older. USDA sees this as a major concern, and the agency is calling for 100,000 new farmers.
“There’s an outmigration of rural America, and we think that’s nation threatening,” said Dr. Merrigan. “We need to have young people decide to farm and ranch. But if you don’t have access to health care, a main street with shops and a good school to send your kids to, you’re not going to want to stay on the farm.”
The second largest part of the farm bill budget goes to income support for farmers and direct subsidies for certain commodities like corn, wheat, soybeans, rice and cotton. While Ken Cook, one of the panelists and president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, said providing a safety net for farmers is necessary especially when faced with extreme weather, the U.S. should rethink which crops receive government subsidies.
“We’ve lost sight of what you would invest in if you were really concerned with sustainability and improved health,” said Mr. Cook.
Most of the subsidies don’t even end up going toward food, said Susan Prolman, executive director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and one of the policy forum’s panelists. Instead, they go to fund corn and soybeans that are used to make ethanol, biodiesel and animal feed.
The push to rethink which crops government subsidies support comes at a time when the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called the Food Stamp Program, is at an all-time high. As the number of unemployed Americans increased by 94 percent between 2007 and 2011, SNAP enrollment increased by 70 percent.
Ensuring that this program does not succumb to budget cuts is the Environmental Working Group’s top priority.
“The thought that this program would be demonized on the political trail and threatened with cuts when we have a record number of people receiving the benefits and half of the beneficiaries are kids – to me is unacceptable,” said Mr. Cook.
Jim Weill, president of the Food Research Action Council and a panelist, wants to see funding for the SNAP program increase. Current allotments only get families through the third week of each month, he said.
“Sustainability is ultimately about children, and to be in a country this wealthy and have kids in one in four households that don’t have enough to eat at some point in the year is a problem we have to address,” said Mr. Weill.
Food insecurity also contributes to the nation’s obesity problem, he said, because people on limited budgets tend to buy cheaper and more energy-dense food rather than healthier, nutrient-dense choices.
With the nation in the midst of a budget crisis, environmentalists fear that conservation programs will take a major hit in the next farm bill. Margaret Korme, policy program director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute and a policy forum panelist, said it is vital that the farm bill include requirements for conservation.
“We have to make sure that we don’t give subsidies without making sure the land is protected for future generations,” she said.
Ms. Prolman said there are few incentives in the current farm bill that encourage farmers to use sustainable practices. That’s why the next farm bill should include an emphasis on rebuilding local and regional food systems, she said.
“Let’s spend taxpayers’ dollars in a way that provides incentives for good behaviors that we want to reward and encourage and not spend it for behaviors and practices that hurt American society as a whole,” said Ms. Prolman.
Dr. Merrigan, an organic food expert and advocate for the local food movement, encouraged GW students to use USDA’s new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food compass, an online tool to connect farmers to consumers, local food businesses and community leaders and provide guidance on developing local and regional food enterprises.
“All of you should engage in this legislative process,” said Dr. Merrigan. “The more people that engage and bring their voice, the better.”