As the Occupy Wall Street movement gains steam all over the world, protesting the gaming of the government and the economy in favor of the special interests, many wonder if those in the halls of power are listening and reacting to what they see in the protests. When the Tea Party rose from the ashes of the 2008 election, that movement clearly impacted the policy goals of the American right. Will the #OWS movement have the same impact on the American left?
So far, it doesn’t look that way. The powerful seem to be deaf to the spirit of the movement. President Obama’s just-announced foreclosure plan appears to be another backdoor bailout for the big banks, and despite prominent opposition (New York Times editorial), it appears the State Department is happy to help TransCanada, who wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline to transport tar sands crude from Canada through to the Gulf of Mexico, risking environmental disaster along the way.
But the biggest violation of the spirit of the protests looks to be in the one industry everyone has a stake in, one of the most monopolistic, special interest-dominated sectors of our society: food. Because if Congress was listening to the cries of the 99%, they wouldn’t even consider pulling this stunt:
Typically, passage of the Farm Bill occurs every five years and involves a lengthy process of hearings, constituent meetings, and (sad but true) many a high-priced meal on the tab of some lobbyist or other—followed by detailed negotiations between the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. It has also often been seen as an opportunity to—as one recent action alert put it—change the food system by supporting small farms, investing in rural economies, and “supporting more diversified farming and livestock systems, healthy food access, conservation, and research.”
The next reauthorization was not expected until late in 2012—if not 2013—but through an unexpected turn of events, it may be decided much faster, and with even less input from the good food movement than the last one.
And when I say faster, I mean at warp speed. Earlier this week, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the House and Senate Ag Committees suddenly announced that they would write the entire 2012 Farm Bill in the next two weeks.
You read that right. Big Food (four companies control 75% of the beef industry, for example) doesn’t want to risk their subsidies and handouts, and doesn’t want the local, sustainable food movement to get a toe-hold or a level playing field, so they’re using their congressional allies to cram through the 2012 Food Bill in two weeks.
Conversely, Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) will introduce this week the Local Farm, Food, and Jobs Act, which would, in part:
- Provide funding to help farmers build the infrastructure—like slaughterhouses—to process and sell their food locally.
- Require USDA to keep doing traditional seed research, not just on genetically modified seeds.
- Create a new crop insurance program tailored to the needs of organic farmers and diversified farmers who grow a wide variety of crops and can’t easily access traditional crop insurance.
- Break down barriers for schools and institutions to procure local food more easily. Provide schools with a local school credit to purchase local foods, as well as fix out-dated federal policies that inhibit schools from purchasing local food.
- Make it easier for food stamp recipients to spend their money at farmers markets by giving the farmers access to technology necessary to accept electronic benefits—that money goes right back into the local economy. The bill includes a pilot program to test smart phone technology to accept food stamp benefits at farmers market.
Having studied this issue, the benefits of growth in the local food market in regions around the country are myriad, including many health and environmental benefits. But the largest impact to regional economies is simply more money. And even if you disagree, and think that heavily-subsidized corn that goes to make cheap beef feed so you can have a 99-cent hamburger is the best thing for our physical and economic well-being, surely you’d agree that these issues should be discussed in a public process.
The congresspeople who will attempt to cram the Food Bill into the supercommittee process hail from both political parties. This is not a partisan issue. This is an issue of congressional trickery denying Americans the right to a voice in the process that defines what we eat and how we farm. We should not be denied that opportunity.