by Kathleen Logan Smith

In this column, we’ve been learning more about the U.S. Farm Bill, the package of legislation that impacts our food system- what is grown, how it’s grown, and how much it costs. The Farm Bill, or the Food Bill as it should be known, is reauthorized every five years or so by Congress. The next one will be written in 2012, unless the Congressional Super Committee eliminates this.

Tsunamis, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, earthquakes, droughts, and nuclear meltdowns devastated communities across the globe in 2011. Disasters such as these bring our vulnerabilities into sharp focus– vulnerabilities like our food system. In Missouri, ours is dependent on fossil fuels.

Here’s what we know: High crop prices like we’ve had lately encourage more farming of marginal land. The intensive cultivation of land for short-term crop yields, with dependence on petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, depletes the health of the soil even while it temporarily increases crop yields. Within a few years, yields obtained from marginal lands decline and farmers abandon once-productive fields. Soil that has been degraded in this way holds less water, erodes more, and makes crops more susceptible to drought. It also contains less organic matter and fewer microorganisms that break down minerals and fertilizers for plant uptake.  As a result, these fields contribute more to agricultural pollution which degrades waters and fish stocks in our lakes, rivers and oceans.

Conservation programs and practices mitigate this damage by intercepting pollution and incentivizing pollution prevention strategies like cover crops and other soil-saving and clean water practices. Right now, most farm programs require adherence to good conservation standards, except the biggest federal farm program: crop insurance. This is a loophole big enough to drive a combine through and it is costing Americans billions. Beyond the cash, it is costing us our soil and water and that is a debt we cannot afford.

America’s farm policies must require good, proven, cost-effective conservation measures of all producers who receive any benefit from taxpayers because there’s no sense in paying for pollution and petrochemical-dependence.

The Security of Resilience

Our farming systems today have robbed nature of the tools that protect it against flooding, pests, drought, pollution, and disease. These tools include healthy soil, healthy forests, deep-rooted grasslands, pollution-cleaning wetlands, and expansive floodplains. In a disaster-prone world, we need these tools to ensure resilience- and our own survival.

Solutions Start in the Soil

Organic farming systems build resilience and free our food system from the instabilities of oil. Locally strong food systems help protect against disruptions in distribution while delivering fresher food to consumers and supporting farmers.

Transitioning to local, organic farming must be a national priority. It will take 20 years to grow the farmers and the processing and storage infrastructure to even get close to chemical-free, local food for America. Congress is making decisions now about food and farming in the U.S. for the next 20 years. Be sure and tell them what kind of food system you want in the 21st century. Speak up loudly and relentlessly. The corporate lobbyists will (and are).

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