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Don’t blame farm bill for society’s many ills

I recently engaged in a kitchen table discussion with two very close friends about the merits of our farm programs. They had just read a book that gave them pause about farm subsidies, pesticides and animal welfare. These are very intelligent people, by the way, and they discuss with as much fact as emotion.

They are doing all they can to live as green as possible, and that includes buying organic food when they can find it, eggs from free range chickens, and as few products as possible containing high fructose corn syrup.

I admire their convictions, even though I don’t agree with most of them. For instance, arguing that U.S. farm legislation is responsible for the epidemic of obesity in this country implies that we have no choices in what we eat. I do a lot of the grocery shopping for our two-person household and I’ll admit that I don’t read labels as carefully as I probably should. But I avoid fats. I don’t fry much. And I buy fresh fruits and vegetables almost exclusively. I occasionally eat fast foods, but it’s a fairly rare occasion.

This country produces what is arguably the most abundant supply of wholesome food of any country that’s ever existed. That abundance may, indirectly, contribute to pounds around our middles, since we no longer have to forage for food or spend hours daily growing our own. It’s been decades since more than a small percentage of our population engaged in active food and fiber production. U.S. consumers are nowhere near self-reliant. But we do have healthy choices, including some organic foods. Blame our sedentary lifestyles for our spare tires, but to indict farm legislation for obesity is denying responsibility.

And then there’s this whole organic debate. I don’t know a farmer who wouldn’t, if possible, eliminate fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and other materials from his management scheme if he could do so without weeds, bugs and disease devastating his crops. He can’t. It would be cheaper and much less trouble. But turning to strictly organic agriculture means accepting lower yields, potential food quality problems and much more labor.

Environmental advantages would be minimal at best. To produce the same amount of food and fiber, farmers would take in more land, make more trips across the fields and burn more fuel than they do now. The environment would lose vegetative matter and absorb more emissions from tractors, combines and other fuel-burning equipment.

Similar problems exist with free-range chickens, cattle and other livestock. It’s a great theory, but one that requires significantly more acreage than confinement operations. I’m not naive enough to believe that all confinement facilities are as humane or as eco-friendly as they should. And those that are not should be dealt with, fined, possibly put out of business. Animal cruelty and pollution have no place.

Our world population grows significantly every year. New souls demand places to live, food to eat and clothes to wear. And that puts even more pressure on agriculture to produce more on even fewer acres. And farmers across the globe need programs that will allow them to increase productivity to meet those needs.

Senator Charles Grassley recently said the farm bill under consideration “has enough holes to drive a tractor through.” But if Congress and the Bush Administration don’t agree on a program that provides an adequate safety net farmers won’t be able to afford the tractor.

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