A Foodie's Take on the Farm Bill

Originally posted on the Global Circle blog.

I think of myself as a foodie. Maybe not a spend-25%-of-my-salary-on-pickled-lamb-tongue omnivore—not even someone who would choose pickled lamb tongue off the menu—but someone who buys organic, goes to the farmer’s market on Sundays, and appreciates not only how my food tastes, but how it was grown, made, packaged and sold. I also read enough to know that the story of how my food got to my plate is hardly straightforward, shaped by a tangled web of political, economic, and cultural forces. (Global ones, too: just see where your salad comes from.)

There is a complex piece of legislation winding its way through the halls of Congress right now—the new Farm Bill—and what goes (or doesn’t go) into that law will impact how we produce and consume food in this country. As a foodie, I know how important the Farm Bill is. What I hadn’t realized until last night was that it also has serious implications for countries outside the U.S., and particularly for developing countries like Haiti that count on the U.S. for food aid each year. The world’s farmers produce enough food to adequately feed every person on the planet, yet nearly 925 million people worldwide remain hungry. Last night members of Global Circle and our sister organization, Pursue, were fortunate enough to spend a couple of hours with AJWS grantee Camille Chalmers, director of the Haitian Platform for an Alternative Development (PAPDA)—a coalition of Haitian organizations that works at the grassroots to promote democratic policies and solutions in the country. I got the feeling you could spend a whole day with Chalmers and just scratch the surface of his activist work, but what struck me most was the tie-in to the U.S. Farm Bill being hammered out now. Haiti has long-suffered from misdirected international aid, Chalmers said, particularly from the U.S. In a particularly egregious example in the 1990s, the U.S. forced Haiti to adopt low import tariffs and flooded the Haitian market with American-made rice, effectively killing agricultural self-sufficiency. Rice once had been a major crop in the tiny country, the poorest in the Western hemisphere. Today, Chalmers said, most rice consumed there is imported from the U.S.

The U.S. gave over $2 billion dollars in foreign food aid in 2010. I like to think that USAID—the primary government agency for distributing this aid—has only the best intentions in mind. But that’s likely naïve, and from what Chalmers said, hardly the case. (He estimates that 80 percent of food aid directly benefits large corporations.) So what to do? I walked away from last night’s event with many more questions than answers— wanting to better understand how international development policy is made. A natural (and timely) place to do that is with the Farm Bill. AJWS, fortunately, has a number of resources to help.

Marissa Miley Friedman is an author and science writer based in New York.