What Does the 2012 Farm Bill Have to Do with Palm Oil?

posted by Rainforest Action Network
Will the 2012 Farm Bill Shift Our Country's Unhealthy Consumption Patterns Away from Palm Oil Laden Packaged Foods?
Will the 2012 Farm Bill Shift Our Country's Unhealthy Consumption Patterns Away from Palm Oil Laden Packaged Foods? Photo: www.sustainableminimalist.com

As our allies at the Environmental Working Group reminded us this week, the Farm Bill is the single most important piece of legislation that determines what type of food appears on your plate every day, how farmers will be paid government subsidies and what type of environmental protections will preserve the land and topsoil for future generations.

Right now these issues critical to our health are getting debated on the Senate floor. The votes that take place in the next week will determine which provisions make it into the Farm Bill and create the policies that we all want to build a better food and farm future.

Clearly, this is a battle worth paying attention to. Not only if you are concerned about making sure local, organic food is accessible and affordable in your community – but also if you want to keep the thugs of big food in check.

Agribusiness giants like Cargill control our food supply from farm to fork, and enable the majority of Americans to survive on refined, processed and packaged foods chalk full of palm oil. Palm oil is a symptom of our broken food system in every way; if we were consuming fresh fruits, vegetables, grains and local goods, we would not be in the midst of an industrial food crisis. Global demand for manufactured foods with long shelf lives such as cookies, cereals, crackers and chips, has caused the demand for the cheap vegetable oil found in many of these products – palm oil – to skyrocket.

With palm oil, for example, if most people were aware of the fact that half of all the products in our grocery stores contained palm oil linked to rainforest destruction, extinction of Sumatran orangutans and elephants, as well as gross human rights violations such as slave labor, they wouldn’t be buying them.

And guess who we can thank for trafficking all of this controversial palm oil into literally every room of your home? Cargill.

Food policy experts Dan Imhoff and Michael Dimock published a brilliant Op-Ed in the LA Times last week with key recommendations for a strong Farm Bill, which, if met, would drastically reduce North American demand for the refined foods full of palm oil. For example, they mention incentive programs for fruit and vegetable purchases that would shift Americans away from the toxic, processed and packaged foods riddled with palm oil. They also advocate a policy that promotes land conservation and good stewardship. We should not only pay attention to the land and labor where we’re growing food domestically, but also the impact the foods we eat here have on places where they are cultivated internationally.

A few excerpts from their recommendations are as follows:

Supporting food, not feed. Crop subsidies and federal insurance should be aimed at the foods humans should eat. Currently, the lion’s share of subsidies goes to commodity crops used to feed livestock or to produce ethanol or overly processed foods. A shift in what is subsidized should be accompanied by changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to include incentive programs for fruit and vegetable purchases that would help Americans avoid diet-related disease.

Focusing on safeguarding the land. As with the original farm bill, government investments in agriculture should promote conservation and good stewardship. Currently, the farm law can meet only 40% of requests from California farmers and ranchers seeking cost-share dollars for projects to protect water quality, soil health and endangered species.

Adding labor to the equation. The farm bill desperately needs a labor policy. Some 6 million farmworkers do the backbreaking work of putting food on America’s tables, yet there is no portion of the 1,000-page farm bill that explicitly addresses their need for protection from exploitation.

I applaud Mr. Imhoff and Mr. Dimock’s insightful recommendations for a sound Farm Bill, which, if incorporated, would drastically reduce North American demand for the palm oil laden packaged, processed and heavily refined foods on which our country currently depends.

My vision forward is very much in line with Michael Ableman, who gravely warns us of the dangers of relying on traders like Cargill to nourish our communities.

There is nothing more central to our lives than how we secure our food. Yet the responsibility for this has been almost entirely handed over to someone somewhere else, to an industrial system where farms have become factories and food has become a faceless commodity. The results have been disastrous: epidemic levels of childhood obesity and diabetes, food that no longer tastes good or is good for you, polluted groundwater, soil loss at staggering rates, and, most profound, an almost complete disconnection from the social, cultural, and ecological relationships that were once part of agrarian life.