Farm Bill Update

The new, five-year Farm Bill has finally emerged from Congress, and it’s a last chance to put in your two cents.

Farm Bill Infographic

Click to view the slideshow

What is the Farm Bill? The Farm Bill is one of the single most destructive pieces of legislation in the nation. Here is a handy infographic from GOOD magazine that explains it, and if you prefer narrative, here’s a good summary from the New York Times. You can also learn more from the Environmental Working Group, a 20-year old non-profit, and here in Seattle from the Northwest Farm Bill Action Group.

Barn Corn

Would you rather see this?

Many people have no idea that the US Government subsidizes farmers from everything from corn to honey. Sounds great–a safety net to cover lean years of production. It worked, for 40 years. But what has happened since the 70s is a distortion of this idea, so that today, what happens is this: a few corporate farms working corn, soybeans, and wheat, mostly in the midwest, get billions of dollars of handouts. Much of their crop goes to waste, or is used for things nature did not intend (feeding corn to cattle, for instance). This legislation affects the way the world’s entire food chain works–or doesn’t.

Corn Plant

…or would you rather see this?

People (and even local governments) in Seattle and across the United States have been anticipating the new Farm Bill and working to make it better–so it can help more farmers, address environmental concerns, and not waste so much money. But their efforts have been mostly ignored: the current legislation simply presents more of the same–huge handouts to multinational corporations.


Contact your Senator. The bill in debate is the US Senate’s Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012 (S. 3240), otherwise known as the Senate’s version of the Farm Bill. The Senate will make edits and amendments before sending the bill to the House of Representatives, and then (if it passes) to President Obama. The best way to affect the bill now is to get your Senator to listen to you, and not to a company who does not care about you.

Who is my Senator? Find out here. It’s better to call, because it takes staff time and therefore energy from the office to listen to you. Ask for the Agriculture Legislative Assistant. If you are in Washington State, your senators are

  • Senator Maria Cantwell: 202-224-3441 (Ask for Agriculture Legislative Assistant, Paul Wolfe). If you must write, you can do so here.
  • Senator Patty Murray: 202-224-2621 (Ask for Agriculture Legislative Assistant, Adam Goodwin). If you must write, you can do so here.

What do I say? Here are some good talking points (adapted from the Community Alliance for Global Justice):

The Farm Bill includes some steps to scale up cultivation and distribution of healthy foods, but it doesn’t go far enough. Tell your Senator:

I’m concerned about the Farm Bill—that it doesn’t do enough to prioritize small farmers, healthy food, taxpayers, and the environment. Please support these amendments to the proposed Farm Bill:

  • Cap crop-insurance subsidies and require farmers who receive them to meet conservation requirements. This will save billions of taxpayer dollars and protect the environment;
  • Restore full funding for SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps) to make sure families have access to nutritious food;
  • Include full mandatory funding for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and the Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program to help keep America farming;
  • Support alternatives to genetically-engineered plant varieties by reserving 5% of research funding for classical plant breeding;
  • Include a ban on packer ownership of livestock to limit consolidation in the meat industry.

It will take you 15 minutes or less to make these two calls. If enough of us do it, we might get to eat healthy food that is intended to nourish people and the planet. Worth 15 minutes, isn’t it? Call your Senator today!

Thoughts on Colony Collapse

Last week’s article in CNN Money provides a misleading view of the urgent agricultural crisis facing the globe.

The article provides a smattering of facts about Colony Collapse disorder, and minimizes them by saying that food prices have remained the same, and that crop yields have gone up. and everything’s going to be fine. Why? Because “beekeepers have been able to rejuvenate their hives each year.”

That’s true but misleading. Beeks are splitting hives as fast as possible, buying nucleus colonies and shelling out for packages (the prices of which have skyrocketed). Those new colonies however are a quick fix and doomed to fail. Can you say “housing bubble”?

The fact is that 75% of all the bee colonies in the nation are trucked to California to pollinate almonds early in the year. With hundreds of thousands more acres of almonds planned, what will that crop require? Answer: bees shipped in from Australia, China, and other countries. Bees are not a crop like tomatoes that comes up every year. They are living colonies that mature over generations and seasons. They self-select for certain traits given their habitat and geography. The use of them in a multinational business capacity is clearly destroying the system.

How the orchards get pollinated in China.

Food prices might not be responding to the pollinator crisis yet: they are getting plenty of subsidies from the Food Bill, for instance. Meanwhile, federal agencies are–this very week–considering the approval of a pesticide that is even more powerful than Roundup. All these efforts are taxing the production system–starting with the small pollinators–to the limit. In China, pear orchards are now pollinated by humans wielding cigarette butts tied to sticks. Our capacity for food production is not unlimited.

The real answer should be providing healthy diets for the bees, and keeping residential colonies on the orchards. Then the bees can make pollinating the crops part of a healthy lifecycle. It’s better for the crops and farmers too.

According to a study from the Ecological Society of America, “Canola growers who leave 30 percent of their fields wild, allowing weeds and native plants to grow untended near or interspersed among their crops attract more native pollinators, achieve considerably higher yields in canola seed, and as a result generate higher incomes than those who plant 100 percent of their fields with canola.

That’s something worth CNN Money’s attention, and that of the general public too. Things have to change.


Bee talk!

We’re thrilled and a little nervous to be presenting tonight at the Neptune Theater, for the Burke Museum and STG’s event “Short Takes: What the World Eats.” Ten very short talks and slideshows will range from NW coastal native foods to dumpster diving to women farmers in the developing world. And bees. (This painting from Breugel, “The Beekeepers,” is from 1567 and will be part of our talk.) Maybe see you there!