Our current food system is broken, and it did not happen by accident. Many people do not have access to safe, nutritious, affordable food; many farmers can’t make a living; many regions of the country no longer produce the food they consume; and large-scale indus- trial agriculture pollutes our soil and water. Decades of misguided farm policy designed by agribusiness, combined with unchecked corporate consolidation, have wreaked havoc on family farmers, public health and rural communities.
Independent farmers have been sold out by an agricultural policy that favors the overproduction of commodity crops like corn and soybeans, often driving down their price. Deregulation has left farmers vulnerable to wild swings in the price of corn, soybeans and wheat, lowering farmers’ earnings for most of the last 15 years. Meanwhile, agribusiness buyers — grain-trading companies, meatpackers and food manufacturers that use soybeans and corn in processed foods — reap huge profits from this system that promotes cheap commodity crops. Farm policy has continued to rely on exports to absorb excess supplies of bargain basement-priced crops, while failing to address the real problems at home, including high land prices, high debt and weakened safety nets for farmers.
Small and midsized farms are at the mercy of market fluctuations, and a wave of agribusiness, food manufacturing and supermarket mergers has made the problem worse. Consolidation has allowed a handful of companies that buy crops and livestock to dictate the prices that farmers receive. The four largest companies in each industry slaughter nearly all the beef, process two-thirds of the pork, sell half the groceries and manufacture about half the milk in the United States. This means that the low prices paid to farmers are not passed on to consumers as savings at the grocery store.
There is a growing movement of farmers and consumers working to rebuild local food systems and put more of the consumer food dollar directly in the hands of farmers. But unfortunately, shopping well is not enough. While we work to restore links in our local food systems that bring farmers and consumers together, we must fix broken food policy at the federal level. The Farm Bill, which is rewritten every five years, offers a critical opportunity to change federal farm and food policy. Instead of catering to agribusiness’s desire for cheap raw materials, our next Farm Bill should ensure functional, fair markets so that farmers and farmworkers who grow our food can earn a decent living, promote environmental stewardship and rebuild the infrastructure we need for consumers to access sustainably grown, regionally produced food.