A Word With Marion Nestle - Made in the USA Week


20120106-OC-AMW-0591Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Washington may still be reeling from the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”), but very quietly in the background of the media firestorm, another monstrous piece of legislation is making its way through Congress. The 1,000-plus page farm bill, which potentially saves the government $23 billion, just passed through the doors of the Senate two weeks ago and is now on its way to the House.

Photo courtesy of Marion Nestle.

To gain some perspective on what exactly is in this bill, we speak to Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health – a department she chaired from 1988 to 2003 — and Professor of Sociology at New York University. She is the author of several books on food safety and policy including Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health and her latest, Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics.

BreakThru Radio: Let’s first talk about the farm bill that passed through the Senate, which was set to replace a 2008 measure set to expire in late September. The measure scales back farm subsidies in favor of a crop insurance program in order to stabilize food prices while reducing the overall deficit, saving the government a prospective $23 billion. Are there any benefits to the crop insurance program as opposed to traditional farm subsidies from the vantage point of food quality and safety?

Marion Nestle: I’m not sure from food quality and safety, I mean, it’s a safety net for farmers. It’s a really interesting approach. I taught a course on the farm bill at New York University this year and everybody in my class said they wanted to go into the crop insurance business because only a few companies write all of the insurance for the entire farming community, the government pays a big fraction of the premiums — that’s us the taxpayers — and the government takes all the risk. And the crop insurance companies are extremely well protected. So it’s a great business to be in.

BTR: It sounds a little bit like what’s going on in health care…

MN: It does indeed, it does indeed.

BTR: … Except for the patients are taking on the risk, not necessarily the government.

MN: Well the patients are taking on the risk in the health care system anyway, so there you go. But whether this will be an improvement over the direct payments that were the cause of so much opposition remains to be seen. There are some things in the farm bill that are highly desirable from the standpoint of health. You know, one of the things that would be really terrific would be if the farm bill were a vision of what kind of agricultural system we want and in doing that, we’d bring our agricultural policy in line with health policy. But that’s not the way government works and it’s certainly not the way the farm bill works, where any small gains for health policy come out of a great deal of argument. And everybody’s giving Debbie Stabenow, head of the Senate Agricultural Committee, a great deal of credit for hanging onto the small features of the farm bill that promote consumption of fruits and vegetables.

BTR: Still, publicly she touts that the main focus of this bill has been to reduce the deficit, and that seems to be in the forefront of the language in support of the bill at least that I’m hearing from her. Is that necessarily taking away from food quality or safety in any way, is that damaged in any way?

MN: Well the important thing to understand about the farm bill is that 85 percent of the money that goes to it goes for, really, a welfare program, it goes for food assistance, SNAP, food stamps, and that overpowers the amount of money that’s involved. So any cut to the farm bill is necessarily going to be a cut to food assistance for the poor and that’s what happened here. There were cuts to some programs, although, some of those cuts were made up in other ways. The farm commodity community didn’t take the complete hit because food assistance policy also took, I think, a $4.5 billion cut.

BTR: Several varieties of programs were still funded including the Specialty Crop Block Grant program. I wasn’t able to find this in the brief amount of research I was able to do before speaking to you, but what are the kinds of crops, exactly, funded through the Specialty Crop Block Grant program?

MN: The ‘specialty crops’ is the Department of Agriculture’s euphemism for fruits and vegetables. So that’s one of the programs that is linked to health in some way because the growers of fruits and vegetables have a tiny little piece of the farm bill. It used to be that the growers of commodities — corn, soy beans, and so forth — were not allowed to grow fruits and vegetables, “specialty crops,” if they participated in commodity assistance programs but that’s changed a little bit in the Senate version of the bill. Of course, what the House is going to do with it nobody can predict.

BTR: Yes, I was about to ask, from that same standpoint, are you concerned at all that these programs funded by the Senate could lose funding in the $10 billion of further cuts the House is asking for by the time it hits their desk?

MN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the farm bill has to be understood as not a vision of agricultural policy in America. The farm bill is nothing but a collection of literally hundreds of programs, many of them earmarked, some of them utterly amazing [that] you can’t believe something like that is in the farm bill. My favorite is that extras who work on TV and film studios can now bring their pets to work and not have special restrictions on doing that. What’s that doing there? But that’s what the farm bill is — it’s a big catch-all for agriculture Senators to put things in that their constituents want. So when you have something like that, everybody’s going to be fighting for their piece of the pie. And the real question when the farm bill goes to the House is who is going to get hurt worse, agricultural supports or food assistance?

BTR: Do you think there’s a higher probability that extraneous things like that TV set extras provision you just mentioned could get cut in that $10 billion? Do you think there’ll be higher scrutiny for that type of provision, say from the Tea Party members of Congress?

MN: Well it depends on how much money is involved. Understand that the Senate bill is more than 1,000 pages long, that there were 300 amendments introduced to try to fix it and that the Senate had to deal with 70 or more of them and we’re talking about $97 billion a year over the next ten years. So this thing is huge and it so big and there are so many programs in it that no legislator, Senator or House member, can possibly grasp the whole thing. It is not possible for one human mind to know everything about the farm bill. Consequently, people only know little teeny pieces of it, and therefore, it’s wide open to special interests who have an interest in one piece of that pie that maybe nobody else knows anything about. I think it’s the most undemocratic piece of legislation that we deal with as a result of that because it’s so obscure and so big and so complicated and so hard to understand that only lobbyists through one or another piece of it can make their case clear.

For more of our conversation with Marion, check out the latest episode of BTR’s new current events podcast, Third Eye Weekly, coming this Thursday. For more on Marion, you can check out her website, foodpolitics.com, which features postings from her column in the San Francisco Chronicle.