These two topics are easily separate blogs (or a life’s research) altogether, so I’ve included some links that will give you far more information about this topic below. For my purposes, I’m going to highlight some of the legislation that shapes how the farmers in the U.S. work hard every day to feed us, as well as some of the factors that determine what foods are available for us to buy.
It’s difficult to talk about current agricultural policy in the U.S. without giving at least a nod to the past; it helps to explain how we got to where we are today. In an attempt at brevity, I’ll start in the late 1800’s with the development of the land grant universities. Information from these publicly funded institutions was transferred to farmers through an extension service set up around 1910, and they encouraged farmers to adopt the new methods and technology developed at the universities. The new technologies often allowed for greater efficiencies in production or harvest, which encouraged many other farmers to take on the new methods. Those that either didn’t want to, or couldn’t, often lost their farm because they couldn’t compete, and their higher-tech neighbors often bought up their farms, thus expanding and producing more. The technologies that allowed for greater on-farm efficiencies led to an abundance of food at times, particularly of the same crops, namely corn, soybeans and wheat. This caused prices to trend downward, forcing farmers to adopt the latest technology in an attempt to lower their input costs. Since much of the research at the land grant universities focused on just a few grain crops, this is what the farmers planted, which led to an abundance of cheap grain. The availability of cheap gran led to livestock operations to transition to confined systems from pasture-based systems in order to consolidate efficiency of purchased inputs (the grain). This eventually led to the horizontal and vertical integration of the animal industry, as it stands today.
Agriculture is fickle, as are the prices farmers receive for their commodities, which is increasingly compounded by globalization. Farm income can fluctuate wildly, and droughts followed by a recession had many families leaving their farms in hopes of a more stable income. Government policies to help these family farmers, as well as to protect the environment and natural resources, first surfaced in the 1930’s. The programs varied widely, but were generally designed to curtail risks facing farmers by limiting production (paying them not to produce) to keep prices supported. These policies tended to discourage diversification and reward large producers of monocultures. Attempts were made over the years to change the legislation and save small farmers, but the end result always seemed to lead to overproduction, environmental degradation, larger farms, and ever fewer farmers. Who still were are struggling with low income.
Food policy is distinctly different from agricultural policy in that it deals solely with the end product of what our farmers grow. Food policy deals with food safety, nutrition, food assistance programs, school meals, and establishes standards for food production, processing, marketing, availability, access, and consumption. More recently, food policy is beginning to be developed to promote local farms, such as at farmers markets, or through farm to school/institution programs. Current food policy aims to ensure all Americans have access to healthy food, regardless of income level. Most policies have roots in the mid-1900’s, in response to problems of undernourishment prevalent in the U.S. populace. Today’s policies include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Women, Infants and Children (WIC), school meals, and commodity programs. See a comprehensive overview on the Food and Nutrition Services pages of the USDA.
For an excellent blog about US food policy, follow Dr. Parke Wilde from Tufts University. Also check out the Community Food Security Coalition. A very information report on food and agricultural policy can be found on the USDA’s website. And not to be missed is Marion Nestle’s blog about Food Politics.