This letter was initiated by Environmental Working Group and authors Anna Lappé and Dan Imhoff out of frustration with the lack of meaningful reforms and public input into the legislative process by the Senate Agriculture Committee as it drafted its 2012 Farm Bill. Every Member of Congress received a copy of the letter on June 4th in anticipation of the Farm Bill going to the Senate floor for debate later this week.

Now is our chance to turn the farm bill into a healthier food bill, but we need you to stand with us.

Join EWG, Mario Batali, Michael Pollan and more than 70 of the nation's food and health leaders in urging Congress to cut crop insurance subsidies and redirect that money into vital investments in nutrition, healthy food and conservation programs. Click here to take action right now – before the Senate votes on the 2012 farm bill.

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An Open Letter to Members of Congress:

With the 2008 farm bill due to expire in a matter of months, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved legislation in April to steer the next five years of national food and agriculture policy. We applaud the positive steps that the proposed bill takes under Senator Debbie Stabenow’s leadership, including incentives for fruit and vegetable purchases, scaling up local production and distribution of healthy foods and bolstering marketing and research support for fruit, nut and vegetable farmers.

Unfortunately, the Senate bill falls far short of the reforms needed to come to grips with the nation’s critical food and farming challenges. It is also seriously out of step with the nation’s priorities and what the American public expects and wants from our food and farm policy. In a national poll last year, 78 percent said making nutritious and healthy foods more affordable and accessible should be a top priority in the farm bill. Members of the U.S. Council of Mayors and the National League of Cities have both echoed this sentiment in recent statements calling for a healthy food and farm bill.

Although the committee proposal includes important reforms to the commodity title, we are deeply concerned that it would continue to give away subsidies worth tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to the largest commodity crop growers, insurance companies, and agribusinesses even as it drastically underfunds programs to promote the health and food security of all Americans, invest in beginning and disadvantaged farmers, revitalize local food economies and protect natural resources. We strongly object to any cuts in food assistance during such dire times for so many Americans. These critical shortcomings must be addressed when the bill goes to the Senate floor.

As written, the bill would spend billions to guarantee income for the most profitable farm businesses in the country. This would come primarily in the form of unlimited crop insurance premium subsidies to industrial-scale growers who can well afford to pay more of their risk management costs. Crop insurance programs must be reformed to work better for diversified and organic farmers and to ensure comprehensive payment caps or income eligibility requirements. Otherwise, this so called “safety net” becomes an extravagant entitlement for affluent landowners and insurance companies.

In addition, the proposed $9 billion-a-year crop insurance program comes with minimal societal obligations. Growers collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance premium subsidies should at least be required to take simple measures to protect wetlands, grassland and soil. Instead, the unlimited subsidies will encourage growers to plow up fragile areas and intensify fencerow-to-fencerow cultivation of environmentally sensitive land, erasing decades of conservation gains.

Most of the benefits from these programs would flow to the producers of five big commodity crops (corn, soy, cotton, rice and wheat). Meanwhile, millions of consumers lack access to affordable fruits and vegetables, with the result that the diets of fewer than five percent of adults meet the USDA’s daily nutrition guidelines. Partly as a result, one in three young people is expected to develop diabetes and the diet-related health care costs of diabetes, cancer, coronary heart disease and stroke are rising precipitously, reaching an estimated $70 billion a year.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The Government Accountability Office has identified modest reforms to crop insurance subsidies that could save as much as $2 billion a year. Half could come from payment limits that affect just four percent of the growers in the program. Congress should use these savings to provide full funding for conservation and nutrition assistance programs and strengthen initiatives that support local and healthy food, organic agriculture and beginning and disadvantaged farmers. These investments could save billions in the long run by protecting valuable water and soil resources, creating jobs and supporting foods necessary for a healthy and balanced diet.

When it is your turn to vote, we urge you to stand up for local and healthy food and nutrition programs and to support equitable and fiscally responsible amendments that will protect and enhance public health and the environment while maintaining a reasonable safety net for the farmers who grow our food. More than ever before, the public demands this. Come November, they will be giving their votes to members of Congress who supported a healthy food and farm bill that puts the interests of taxpayers, citizens and the vast majority of America’s farmers first and foremost.

Our nation was built on the principles of protecting our greatest legacy: the land on which we grow our food and feed our families. Stand with us to protect not only farmers, without whom we would all go hungry, but to enact a food and farm bill that fairly and judiciously serves the interests of all Americans.

Sincerely,

Leigh Adcock Executive Director, Women, Food and Agriculture Network
Will Allen Farmer, Founder, CEO of Growing Power
Dan Barber Executive Chef and Co-owner Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Neal D. Barnard, MD President, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
Sung e Bai Director of National Programs, Slow Food USA
Mario Batali Chef, Author, Entrepreneur
Fedele Bauccio CEO, Bon Appetit Management Company
Jo Ann Baumgartner Wild Farm Alliance
Rick Bayless Chef, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo
David Beckmann President, Bread for the World

Andy Bellatti

Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, Andy Bellatti Nutrition
Wendell Berry Lane's Landing Farm
Haven Bourque Founder, HavenBMedia
Tom Colicchio Craft Restaurants
Christopher Cook Author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis
Ken Cook President, Environmental Working Group
Ann Cooper Chef and Founder, Food Family Farming Foundation
Ronnie Cummins Organic Consumers Association
Laurie David Author, Family Dinner
Michael R. Dimock President, Roots of Change
Christopher Elam Executive Director, INFORM
Maria Echeveste Senior fellow, Center for American Progress (for affiliation purposes only)
Andy Fisher Co-founder and founding Executive Director, Community Food Security Coalition
Chef Kurt Michael Friese Owner, Devotay Restaurant & Bar and Publisher, Edible Iowa River Valley
Joan Dye Gussow Grower, Author, Professor Emerita Teachers College, Columbia University
Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD Food Sleuth Radio
Gary Hirshberg Co-founder and Chairman, Stonyfield
Mark Hyman, MD Chairman, The Institute for Functional Medicine
John Ikerd Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics
Dan Imhoff Author, Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill
Wes Jackson President, The Land Institute
Kristi Jacobson Catalyst Films
Michael Jacobson Executive Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest
Robert Kenner

Director, Food Inc.

Navina Khanna Co-Founder and Field Director, Live Real
Andrew Kimbrell Executive Director, Center for Food Safety
Fred Kirschenmann

Author, Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays From a Farmer Philosopher

Melissa Kogut Executive Director, Chefs Collaborative
Anna Lappé Author, Diet for a Hot Planet, Cofounder, Small Planet Institute
Robert S. Lawrence, MD Center for a Livable Future, Professor, Johns Hopkins University
Kelle Louaillier Executive Director, Corporate Accountability International
Bill McKibben Author, Deep Economy
Liz McMullan Executive Director, Jamie Oliver Food Foundation
Craig McNamara President Sierra Orchards and Center for Land-Based Learning
Carolyn Mugar Founder and Director of Farm Aid
Frances Moore Lappé Cofounder, Small Planet Institute
Dave Murphy and Lisa Stokke Food Democracy Now!
Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, II Director for Public Witness, Presbyterian Church
Marion Nestle Professor, NYU and Author, Food Politics
Y. Armando Nieto Executive Director, California Food and Justice Coalition
Nicolette Hahn Niman Rancher, Author, Attorney
Denise O'Brien Co-founder, Women, Food and Agriculture Network; organic farmer
Robyn O'Brien Executive Director, AllergyKids Foundation
Michael Pollan Professor, UC Berkeley School of Journalism
Nora Pouillon Chef, Author, Owner of Restaurant Nora
LaDonna Redmond Food Justice Advocate and Food and Community Fellow
John Robbins Author, Diet For A New America, The Food Revolution, and No Happy Cows
Ocean Robbins Host, Food Revolution Network
Ricardo Salvador Union of Concerned Scientists
Eric Schlosser Author, Fast Food Nation
Lori Silverbush Silverbush Productions
Matthew Scully Author, Dominion
George L. Siemon CEO, Organic Valley
Michele Simon President, Eat Drink Politics
Jim Slama President, FamilyFarmed.org
Naomi Starkman Founder, Editor-in-chief, Civil Eats
Anim Steel Real Food Challenge
Josh Viertel Former President, Slow Food USA
David Wallinga, MD Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy
Alice Waters Owner of Chez Panisse Restaurant
Andrew Weil, MD Founder and Director, Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine
Tom and Denesse Willey T&D Willey Farms
Paul Willis Founder/Manager Niman Ranch Pork Company
Mark Winne Mark Winne Associates

 

June 17th, 2011

I work in food and agriculture, so when I sit down to a locally sourced, home cooked dinner with my family, I often think of the 2012 Farm Bill’s connection to the food on my table. Re-christened the “Food and Farm Bill” by a fierce tribe of good food advocates, the 2012 version is the most important piece of environmental legislation that Congress will enact in the next 18 months.

I have no illusion that my dinners are completely different from those of millions of Americans. Most people eat mainly processed food as a result of the billions of subsidy dollars diverted to industrial agriculture and the cheap food that is produced by it. The next Farm Bill is our best shot at fixing these flaws in our food system.

Good news: the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is fighting for better policies that would make local and organic dinners like mine the norm rather than the exception, including turning its attention to the 2012 Farm Bill.

EWG helps families make healthier personal and environmental choices, moving consumer markets for good and winning policy battles. Many of us know their work from their handy shopping pocket guides. Recently the group released the seventh edition of its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce with updated information on 53 fruits and vegetables and their total pesticide loads, featuring the catchy and accessible “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15.” In the new 2011 version, apples trumped celery for the most contaminated produce and cilantro made the Dirty Dozen list for the first time.

Curious about the impending 2012 bill, I’ve made several visits to EWG’s Farm Subsidy Database, which illustrates the imbalance in an agricultural system that pays $246.7 billion to farmers who grow commodity crops that we can’t really eat. It tracks top recipients of funding from 1995 to 2009, showing that 10 percent of farmers collected 74 percent of all payments. These large commodity farmers of corn, cotton, and soybeans make out like bandits, while our government shorts struggling small family farmers who grow food you’d want on your family’s table.

On May 25, the House Agriculture Appropriations committee announced $2.7 billion in cuts, mainly to conservation and sustainable agriculture. While there had been discussion of cutting or capping farm subsidies, the House saved subsidies at the last moment on Wednesday, cutting hunger programs instead.

I recently wrangled a ticket to EWG’s annual benefit “Turning the Farm Bill into the Food Bill,” which hosted 300 donors in foodie culture’s mecca, the soaring cathedral of light and highbrow food principles that is San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Building. The sold out event’s glittering speaker line up included musician-cum-environmental activist Bonnie Raitt and integrative medicine icon Dr. Andrew Weil.

The evening was well curated, balancing thought-provoking environmental messages, deliciously responsible food, and world-class networking with EWG’s scientists and supporters.

I spotted my heroes Jim Cochran, of Swanton Berry Farms, fresh from winning NRCD’s Growing Green award; Dan Imhoff, editor of The CAFO Reader; and Michael Dimock, Executive Director of Roots of Change. Along with EWG, each of them is working to change the food system, tackling issues ranging from farmworker justice, to eliminating factory farms and strengthening regional food policy.

At my table were EWG Senior Analyst and long-term Farm Bill activist Kari Hamerschlag, who elatedly showed us a sneak preview of her upcoming Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change, and Seth Nickinson of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. Not much for light chatter, we debated dairy’s role in climate change and the benefits of methane digesters versus pastured cows with tablemates from the cooperative, Organic Valley, and explored farmworker justice awareness or lack thereof with UNFI’s marketing folks.

Hamerschlag waxed euphoric about EWG’s committed base and the prospect of real change. “Despite a tough budget year, we have people power on our side,” she said. “With one million EWG supporters and millions of others who care about good food, we can mobilize to force Congress to shift a portion of the billions of dollars spent on wasteful and inequitable commodity subsidies into healthy food for our kids. I believe we can build thriving local and regional food systems that support local farmers and create new jobs in our communities.”

I asked Nickinson what brought him to the event. He told me that among the serious issues facing the nation, the Farm Bill is critical. “EWG does a remarkably ambitious job of connecting a diverse set of issues to personal, community and environmental health. It’s important to work on pesticides, cosmetics and other toxins, but food is the number one thing we ingest. Food is not just a personal issue. It has incredibly broad societal impact.”

EWG’s Ken Cook took us on a sobering romp through the numbers, noting that our nation’s 6,000 farmers’ markets are dwarfed by our 257,000 fast food joints. He explained that the three-fourths of current farm bill dollars are allocated to nutrition; over five years, that translates to $314 billion most of which goes food stamps. We spend the next highest chunk on crops that could never make it to the table as a healthy meal: $60 billion is allocated to subsidies in the form of crop insurance and commodity payments for a handful of industrial crops, such as corn, soybeans, and cotton which are the backbone of the industrial food system that makes too many Americans fat and sick.

More sobering still, $22 billion is allocated for “conservation” and a paltry $15 billion for “everything else” including organic agriculture and school food. I know these figures well but still feel despair every time I hear them. Searching for an upbeat ending, Cook concluded with an inspiring picture of the Renegade Lunch Lady, Chef Ann Cooper, hovering over a salad bar with small group of healthy, happy, schoolgirls. He exhorted us to follow her example by working to make sure the Farm Bill helps put more fruits and vegetables on kids’ plates.

It was growing late and I had beans to soak for the next day’s dinner. Heading to the door, I was pleased to run into Jamie Dean, a Program Officer with the Packard Foundation, one of EWG’s funders. She had a strong opinion: “Without major reform, the Farm Bill has nothing at all to do with food or health. It benefits neither the average person nor the average farmer. It benefits industrial agriculture. Since food resonates with so many of us, the 2012 Farm Bill is an opportunity to re-frame the issue,“ she said.

EWG’s work should inspire and inform all of us: To think of the Farm Bill when we sit down to dinner with family and community and to join this organization and others in working for change. Despite the challenges ahead, I am heartened at the prospect of converting the Farm Bill into the Food and Farm Bill.

 

Haven Bourque is the founder of HavenBMedia an Oakland, CA-based communications group focused on food, environment, and community. She helps businesses, non-profits, and individuals get the word out about their commitments to responsible food sourcing and social justice. When she’s not communicating, she’s cooking up a storm in her kitchen, or walking her neighborhood’s goats. Follow her on Twitter.

What is it with people and their boneless, skinless chicken breasts?

Especially the smug ones who think they are being so green and healthy by eating a low fat white meat? True, most chicken is lower in fat than beef or pork. But how nutritious, really, is our mass-produced, mass-market chicken? My theory is that it’s so innocuous seeming, so flavorless, and so personality-less, that the ubiquitous boneless skinless chicken breast contributes more than it should to thoughtless flesh eating, which we need a whole lot less of.

What do I mean by thoughtless flesh eating? When you don’t need to see bones, gristle, or skin, or anything that looks remotely like it came from an animal, you could easily forget you are eating one. We’ve all done it. Ordered the chicken Caesar in a restaurant, thinking we are getting our much-needed protein and eating something healthy and eco-friendly. A Caesar is a classic salad that wasn’t meant to have chicken on it (or cheap grilled farmed salmon either, but that’s another story).