Farm Policy for Dummies (Like Me)

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Word of the day: “cornification.” Cornification, in a nutshell, is the takeover of a diverse landscape by one mighty plant: corn. The “Effects of Cornification” graphic on page 17 of Dan Imhoff’s new book shows the results: the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone, factory livestock farms, obesity, immigration problems, food deserts (that’s “deserts” not desserts”), the emptying of our rural communities, etc., etc. One look at the “cornification” graphic and a message comes through loud and clear: what the government tells farmers to raise has ramifications far beyond Renville County, Minnesota. Imhoff’s book, Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill, is full of these kinds of eye-opening, mind-expanding graphics. His message isn’t new, but the way he presents it is fresh and important. The phrase “must-read” is much abused (I’ve thought that ever since someone used “must-read” and the book The Bridges of Madison County in the same sentence). But if you are interested in how U.S. farm policy affects our environment, our communities and what we eat, and you want to do something about reforming the system, then Food Fight, is, yes, a must-read.

Imhoff’s book provides a valuable service in a year when a new federal Farm Bill is being written up. It’s time to take the development of ag policy out of the hands of large agribusiness and narrowly-focused commodity groups. But creating a Farm Bill that’s accountable to society requires an informed public.

That’s where Food Fight comes in—it makes a dense topic quite accessible. In a succinct, clear, USA Today-type format, Imhoff’s chapters relate information that anyone who reads newspaper investigative pieces or watches PBS regularly probably has an inkling of: federal farm policy in this country is dysfunctional and expensive, as well as harmful to the environment, human health and our communities.

Imhoff, who is the writing/publishing force behind such books as Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature and Farming with the Wild, knows the power of images. He’s summarized studies, media reports and sleep-inducing statistics in brief, easy to digest graphics. He’s read the think-tank white papers and plowed through the USDA data, so you don’t have to. And then he’s put it all in context.

Don’t let the readability of this book fool you into thinking this is lightweight material; these are some heavy topics Imhoff is addressing: “…nearly 40 million Americans, 12 percent of all households, confront food insecurity, meaning that they often experience hunger or need to skip meals to get by. Many are children,” reads one sentence above a heartbreaking photo of a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk.

This isn’t all graphics, charts and photos. Imhoff also uses clearly-written text to explain complicated issues like the history of U.S. farm programs, how New Zealand reformed its system and what can be done here, now, to reform ours. With chapter titles like, “Why the Farm Bill Matters,” “What Is The Farm Bill?” and “Where It All Started,” this book lives up to its “Citizen’s Guide” claim.

Glancing over Food Fight‘s facts and figures, I was surprised at how many of them I was familiar with. But the sheer weight of their overall impact had not struck me before. Having all of this information put together into one cohesive piece provides a powerful tool for action. As I was reading the book, I was also chagrined at how I’ve become numbed to the ludicrousness of federal ag policy. Over the years, I’ve read about the major corporations that receive the lion’s share of crop subsidies, but it wasn’t until I saw Imhoff’s top 20 “Subsidy Recipients” list that the sheer criminality of it struck home.

For example, J.G. Boswell Company received over $17 million in USDA ag subsidies between 1994 and 2004. Boswell grows cotton in the bottom of what was once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. Sixty percent of U.S. cotton is dumped on the world market at cut-rate prices, threatening the livelihood of farmers all over the planet. I’ve met a few of those Third-World farmers and they don’t want a handout. All they want is to be able to sell their crop at a fair price. But they can’t because our tax money is subsidizing behemoths like Boswell. Free market agriculture? Give me a break. I know a West African farmer (Ear to the Ground No. 20) that could teach us a thing or two about the free market.

Food Fight is a quick read and that’s good; the 2007 Farm Bill deliberations are upon us and may be wrapped up as early as this fall. Read this book and call your Senators and Representatives armed with facts, figures…and a lot of righteous citizen anger.

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