Sunday, January 13, 2013

How The House Agriculture Committee Is Killing Your Family


It took all year for the Senate and the House Agriculture committees to put together balanced, carefully crafted bipartisan omnibus farm bills last year-- only to see Boehner and Cantor refuse to bring the House version up for a vote in the waning days of the 112th Congress. A bill that balances the needs of rural farming communities, corporate AgriBusiness, consumers and food stamps users is always a work of great and minute compromise. Cantor charged into it like a bull in the proverbial china shop-- primarily to prevent a floor fight between farm state Republicans and teabaggers hoping to eliminate the food stamps programs-- and left the whole package in shreds. Instead a last-second, nine-month extension of the unexpired portions of the 2008 Farm Bill, slashing investment in the future of family farms, ranches and rural small towns and devastating the hopes of organic farmers and vegetable producers, was rushed through as part of the fiscal cliff compromise. All the careful work done by the two committees to reform and revitalize the farming sector was ignored completely, preventing, for example, farmers and ranchers from improving soil and water conservation through enrollment in a 2013 Conservation Stewardship Program. Both Senate Agriculture Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and House Agriculture Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) were completely ignored. Although unlimited commodity and crop insurance premium subsidies to corporate mega-farms remain uncapped and untouchable, family farmers and rural communities are left in a state of complete uncertainty, a deadly formula for farmers.

The callous approach by Cantor and Boehner was especially disruptive to organic farmers since the mandatory funding for a variety of organic programs written into the 2008 farm bill didn’t qualify for automatic inclusion into the extension.
Among the organic programs that weren’t included in the extension of the 2008 farm bill are those that fund organic research and extension, cost share to become certified as organic, and an organic data collection system-- the same sort of data collection system that has long been a mainstay for conventional agriculture and that qualified to receive continued funding.

Organic farmers say that these programs have helped them be more productive and better at marketing their goods to meet the growing demand for their crops, milk, meats and other products.

“This is a huge loss for the organic sector,” Barbara Haumann, spokesperson for the Organic Trade Association, told Food Safety News. “The cuts are severe. It will impact farmers who use safer practices and could discourage some farmers because of the loss of cost-share for certification.”

...Instead of reforming U.S. agricultural policy, as had been proposed in the Senate and House versions of the 2012 farm bill, the 9-month extension of the 2008 version includes $5 billion for subsidies and direct payments. These are payments typically doled out, farm bill after farm bill, to certain farmers (among them corn, soybeans, wheat and rice farmers).

In contrast, the House and Senate versions of the 2012 farm bill had called for eliminating the subsidies. The reasoning behind that proposed change was that the commodity farmers were doing well financially and didn’t need them. Apart from farm policy, proposed cost-cutting measures in the farm bill were seen as a way to help fix the nation’s budgetary woes. For example, the Senate bipartisan version of the 2012 Farm Bill called for cuts of $24 billion in spending.

...The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which represents family and smaller-sized farmers, rankled at the decision to extend the 2008 farm bill.

“The message is unmistakable-- direct commodity subsidies, despite high market prices, are sacrosanct, while the rest of agriculture and the rest of rural America can simply drop dead,” said the organization in a statement.

For Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, a populist farm policy research group, the loss of funding for some critical organic programs in the extension of the 2008 farm bill goes beyond whether organic food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally grown food. While that debate is important, he pointed out that there’s also this economic reality to consider: It (the extension) flies in the face of the free-market system the United States’ economy is purportedly based on.

“It (the 2008 farm bill extension) undercuts where markets are going,” Kastel told Food Safety News. “Instead, with this extension, we have the government giving more money (in direct payments) to commodity farmers even though they don’t need payments now because they’re doing well. They’re ignoring what the consumers are voting for in the marketplace. It’s assbackwards. It’s undermining our capitalistic structure and free markets. We’re having the government pick and choose the winners.”

Kastel also pointed out that what organics receives in federal support is “peanuts” compared to the subsidies and other support that conventional agriculture typically receives through the nation’s farm bills and agricultural policy.
With that in mind, we looked at a report from Danielle Moodie-Mills, Director of Environmental Education at the National Wildlife Federation and an advisor at the Center for American Progress, How The Food Industry Is Enabling The United States' Obesity Epidemic.
Obesity has long been framed as an issue of personal responsibility. The prevailing notion has been that if people simply stop eating junk food and start eating healthy fruits and vegetables, they will maintain a healthy weight.

And even though most Americans agree that obesity is a critical public health issue facing the nation-- 83 percent of Democrats, 71 percent of Independents and 65 percent of Republicans rank it as a “serious issue-- opinions about how personal responsibility factors into the epidemic are somewhat divided along party lines. Democrats tend to believe that both the individual and government are responsible for combating the obesity epidemic, while Republicans believe the onus falls largely on the individual.

The “personal responsibility” argument assumes that people can simply avoid sugar and other unhealthy additives by staying away from fast foods. But Dr. Robert Lustig, the author of the new book Fat Chance, explained this week on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that avoiding sugar-- which he believes to be a major cause of America’s weight issue-- may not be as easy as it seems:
One-third of the sugar in our diets comes from soda and sweetened beverages, you can taste it. One-sixth is in desserts, you know about those as well, but half of all the sugar consumed in this country comes from food you didn’t know had sugar in it-- like hamburger buns, hamburger meat, and salad dressing, for instance.
So even when people make a concerted effort to make healthy choices, there is still a great possibility that they are consuming the very product that is causing their weight gain. And the government isn’t doing enough about it.

A few years ago, a group of doctors at Mount Sinai took out an advertisement in the New York Times pressuring the government to stop subsidizing food that was making Americans sick. “High-fructose corn syrup [HFCS] now represents 40 percent of the non-calorie-free sweeteners added to U.S. foods. It is virtually the only sweetener used in soft drinks,” the research physicians wrote in their advertisement. “Because of the subsidies, the cost of soft drinks containing HFCS has decreased by 24 percent since 1985, while the price of fruits and vegetables has gone up by 39 percent.”

But after the negative comments regarding HFCS went viral, corn refiners simply released a [misleading] commercial rebranding HFCS as “corn sugar,” and purporting the safety of the re-named additive saying “corn sugar or cane sugar, sugar is sugar and your body doesn’t know the difference.”

Nearly one-third of American children and adolescents are labeled as overweight or obese, and they are expected to be the first generation who won’t live as long as their parents due to high cholesterol, diabetes, and other metabolic diseases. So will the government finally see fit to engage in the sugar debate and take a hard look at the crops they are subsidizing-- or will Americans have to wait for this epidemic to reach its precipice, much like the battle against cigarettes? Let’s hope not, because the current health care system may just break under the extra weight.
Traditionally, the House Agriculture Committee has been a honeypot for corrupt Members of Congress serving the interests of corporate AgriBusiness on both sides of the aisle. One of Congress' most corrupt members, Minnesota Blue Dog Collin Peterson runs the Democratic side of the committee with an iron fist. Over the last few years, most of his Blue Dog cronies have been defeated and have been replaced by more honest and reform-minded Democrats. This year for example, saw the defeat of Tim Holden (Blue Dog-PA), Joe Baca (Blue Dog-CA), and Larry Kissell (Blue Dog, NC). Newly appointed members include reform-minded progressives Ann Kuster (D-NH) and Rick Nolan (D-MN) and only one new Blue Dog, Pete Gallego (TX). This morning Rep. Kuster addressed the underlying problem for us:

"The failure of the 112th Congress to pass a farm bill is a glaring example of how Washington puts partisan politics before the interests of the American people. Even when Democrats and Republicans in both chambers produced legislation with bipartisan support, House leadership prevented the 2012 Farm Bill from receiving an up-or-down vote. This was a terrible missed opportunity. Not only would passage of a comprehensive farm bill provide much-needed certainty to the agricultural economy, but it would also further the development of renewable energy in New Hampshire, expand broadband access in rural communities, improve the health of our forests, enhance the conservation of our land and water, and help eliminate hunger in America. In the days and weeks ahead, I look forward to using my position on the Agriculture Committee to bring members of both parties together to pass a farm bill that advances these priorities while cutting wasteful subsidies and spending."

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