Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Jen looks at the food crisis and what farmers are doing about it

Lately it seems that not a day goes by without some major headline involving food and farmers--honestly, I can't keep up anymore. Today's story in the New York Times about fertilizer shortages and how they are affecting farmers worldwide is the most emailed Business story of the day. Why do so many people care about a story about fertilizer?

Food is on everyone's mind these days, it seems. While recent polls show that in our faltering economy Americans are most concerned with the cost of gas, we are also feeling the crunch at the grocery store. Worldwide, the problem is much worse. Food shortages are causing riots, coups, deaths -- worldwide 25,000 people a day are dying of conditions linked to hunger.

Even our President is paying attention. Yesterday President Bush said something that we've been saying here at Farm Aid for quite some time now. In a statement on the state of the Farm Bill (which, yes, a year later is STILL being debated in Congress), Mr. Bush said that in response to higher food prices "Creative policy is to buy food from local farmers." Since his administration, and every recent administration before it, has failed to make policy that helps family farmers, we think Bush must be referring to a creative individual policy, not public policy, unfortunately. For while there are some pieces of the Farm Bill that will help family farmers (and will hopefully make it through the final passage), recent public policy hasn't done much to keep family farmers on the land and, therefore, hasn't done much to make it easier for struggling families to buy good, fresh, local, affordable food. Quite the opposite as farm policy since the early 80s has actually favored industrial farms over family farms, giving us cheap, overly processed food that has given rise to a health epidemic that we're just beginning to realize.

But as Mr. Bush pointed out yesterday, family farmers are your best bet for fresh, delicious food--food that doesn't include the extra cost of transportation, refrigeration, marketing. Additionally, family farmers are dedicated to doing something about the global food crisis we find ourselves in. They're not just advocating for policies that help their bottom line (as the agribusinesses are), they're thinking about our food safety and our food security, here at home and across the world.

For example, just yesterday the National Family Farm Coalition presented this letter which Farm Aid has signed on to) to Capitol Hill, calling for the establishment of a strategic national grain reserve--similar to the one we have for oil. The idea behind the reserve is to ensure that we have a supply of grain in the event of an emergency, such as a drought; it serves as a buffer when production drops, as it is now as more farmers spurn wheat in favor of the more profitable and easily grown corn; and it also regulates the price of grain, cushioning the market from price spikes. On Tuesday, the Washington Post published this article about the wheat shortage we're currently experiencing, which is giving rise to higher prices for everything from bagels to pizza to pasta. The real concern, as the Washington Post points out, is that our wheat reserves are the lowest they've been since WWII--only enough to feed the world for just four days. At the same time, more countries are importing more wheat than ever before. A Strategic Grain Reserve would do much to rectify this situation, protecting our national food sovereignty and providing for the world. Family farmers are thinking locally and globally. We hope that Congress is listening. Judging by the articles I'm reading, the rest of us are.

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