Trillium News

Book Review

“FOODFIGHT: The Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill” by Daniel Imhoff

The Devil is in the details. This phrase takes on a serious weight in Daniel Imhoff’s well constructed and highly informative book, “FOODFIGHT: the Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill.” The ills that plague our modern state, from environmental crisis to terrorism to national health care, seem so complex that no panacea seems possible. Yet after reading Imhoff’s book, you are left with the impression that most of these problems could be dramatically improved by simply reforming the massive body of law known as “the Farm Bill.”

“If you eat, pay taxes, care about the nutritional values of school lunches, worry about the plight of bio-diversity or the loss of farmland and shrinking open space, you have a personal stake in the tens of billions of dollars annually committed to agricultural and food policies,” writes Imhoff. In other words, everyone is affected by the Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill is actually a generic name given to a massive piece of omnibus legislation that is signed into law every five to seven years. Each new piece of legislation has its own name (the last Farm Bill passed as the “The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002.”) No matter the name, the Farm Bill is the ultimate piece of modern legislation. From its birth as a 1930’s-era relief effort for the nation’s farmers, it has grown into a massive public subsidy for the largest agribusiness and industrial interests and the ground floor of the social safety net for the poor.

The book offers a great civics lesson on how this little understood but gravely important piece of legislation works, from the shell game that is the appropriations process to the insertion of political wedge issues into the legislation. You also learn how entrenched politics helped destroy the practices of land use, biology and conservation which is now having a massive effect on climate change, through emissions, the destruction of habitat and bio-diversity and carbon sequestration.

According to Imhoff, the Farm Bill exacerbates many serious modern problems, rather that aiding farmers. He makes a strong case against the current largess of subsidies, probably the best known and most politically charged aspects of the Farm Bill. The modern farm bill typically focuses on two main areas. About 50 percent of the funding concentrates on Food Stamps and Nutrition Programs. The other half feeds a competing list of special interests in the agriculture and food industries which are designed to encourage overproduction of certain crops, particularly soybeans and corn.

The book addresses the “cornification” of America that results from these subsidies. “These two crops,” writes Michael Pollan in the foreward, “are the building blocks of the fast food nation: a McDonald’s meal (and most processed food in your supermarket) consists of clever arrangements of corn and soybeans – the corn providing the added sugars, the soy providing the added fat, and both providing the feed for animals.”

At its core, however, the book is a call to action. Because of today’s heightened awareness about obesity, energy dependence, national security and climate change, Imhoff believes the time has never been better to reform the Farm Bill. Unlike a lot of critiques, Imhoff goes out of his way to offer solutions and next steps, both practical and far reaching. The book includes resources to national and local organizations working on a myriad of different issues affected by the Farm Bill. But it’s Pollan that sets the tone in the forward to the book when he says “this time let’s call it the ‘Food Bill’ and put our legislators on notice that we are paying attention.”