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A Call for Gastronomic Revolution: The Farm Bill and Why It Needs to Change

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What with all the political hubbub brewing this year over issues like The War, immigration, abortion, political corruption, we’re pretty sure the Farm Bill is going to get the shaft as far as public conversation is concerned – just like in 2002, when its passing was totally overshadowed by 9/11 and the ensuing hysteria.

Frankly, it’s a damn shame. This is one issue that actually has a chance of raising bipartisan support – even the religious folks are getting behind this one! And more importantly, you don’t need to do much research to realize that the food industry in this country is totally f%@ed up – obesity is becoming one of the major health threats in the United States, e. coli is spreading unchecked, and have you tasted the chicken from your local Ralph’s lately? Dry, bland, and chock full of hormones – appetizing, huh?

The Farm Bill that passed in 2002, a piece of legislation which privileged subsidies for agro-industry over funding for conservation and nutrition programs, has only made a bad situation worse. And if the new bill passes unchanged in 2008, we’re going to see these epidemics of disease and obesity continue.

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So how does a complicated and nightmarishly bureaucratic bill manage to have all these effects on our food? As Michael Pollan so rigorously and reliably explains, the Farm Bill ensures that government subsidies are provided mostly to producers of five major cash crops (corn, wheat, rice, soy, and cotton), which can be transformed into domestic food product, exported worldwide, and used as feed for factory farm animals. Farmers are encouraged to overproduce crops, knowing they'll get paid, but the surplus supply does screwy things with demand - forcing the government to make sure all that extra corn and soy gets remade and refined into various super-sugars and vegetable-derived trans fats - which make items like the Big Mac and the McGriddle cheap and widely available.

What the Farm Bill doesn’t do is encourage enough diversity in cultivation and programs for land conservation. When all is said and done, farmers still don’t get paid enough to feed their families despite twenty billion dollars worth of government subsidization. The mass production and distribution of crops means that animals and people get sicker faster and more efficiently, and third world countries stop cultivating their own corn because they can get it cheaper from the States. The surplus of corn that is created goes back into making processed foods that are now cheaper than fresh fruits and veggies, making all of us fatter. And now they’re trying to make us even more dependent on corn by touting ethanol as the problem to all of our energy woes? Sorry, guys. I ain’t buying.

Well, is there anything we can do about it?

Yes, actually – there’s a lot you can do about it, and it’s pretty easy to start.

Photo by libraryman via flickr

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First of all, go read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Right now. Seriously. I’ll wait. Alright, you don't have a copy handy, read these articles. Okay, done? See? Pretty infuriating, isn’t it? You don't have to shell out big bucks at Whole Foods, all you have to do is start buying and cooking smarter.

Second of all, make your voice heard to your local congressperson. Slow Food LA has a great collection of links, including a sample letter you can email to your representative, and a search engine that will tell you where your state and local politician stands on the issue. Our very own Barbara Boxer is on the Senate subcommittee for Agriculture, Rural Development, and the Food and Drug Administration, which has had to deal with the recent rash of pet food safety issues, among various other p.r. catastrophes concerning the national food supply.

Third, start to make more thoughtful choices about the food you buy, and make it a priority to support local farmers and sustainable producers. Local Harvest has a great search function that you can use to find organic restaurants, farmer’s markets, and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) that offer subscriptions: you get basketfuls of seasonal produce from Southland farms every month or so. I know you occasionally have a craving for asparagus in December, but stop to think for a moment – that asparagus was probably flown in from Argentina on a big jet airplane that used up a heckuva lot of fossil fuel. Maybe cheesy broccoli soup, made from veggies picked thirty miles away, and cheddar from those happy California cows would be a better choice.

One of the most fantastic things about living in Southern California is that even if you are smack in the middle of the city, you still have access to fresh, cheap, delicious local produce year round. Furthermore, so much of our state’s economy depends on agriculture – take a drive through Ventura County sometime, or the fabled Orange County, whose name still carries a quite literal meaning. Follow the 23 or the 118 out into the country, maybe towards Somis or Fillmore. See those farms covering acres and acres of Moorpark, Camarillo, and Oxnard? Ventura County makes more than a billion dollars in agricultural revenue every year, and most of that goes to fruit and nut growers: all crops with limited subsidies but crucial importance to good diet and good taste.

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So take advantage of living here. Stop driving to the corner fast food joint and start walking to the corner co-op or ethnic market. Eat local, cook at home or check out neighborhood restaurants, and start talking about the Farm Bill. There are already stirrings in the Capital about the issue, and the more buzz there is about it, the less politicians can continue to ignore grisly reports of food poisoning and feed-lot economics.

Food reform can happen in 2008. We don’t have to be fat, sick, and unhealthy any longer.

Photo by omaromar via Flickr