Obesity, Global Trade and Beer Prices: Why the Farm Bill is actually cool

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As is usually the case with bills in Congress, I had a lot of trouble believing that the 2007 Farm Bill was applicable to me. After all, the last time I even remember going to a farm was on a kindergarten field trip, when I got goat's milk squirted directly into my mouth and I almost threw up. So, when a friend told me the Farm Bill was really important for everyone, I laughed at him. That is, until he told me beer prices might go up. I did some poking around and, lo and behold, found out that the Farm Bill was actually far more interesting and important than it sounds.

The Farm Bill is the label given to an enormous bundle of programs related to food that comes up for review about every five years. Right now the Senate and House are debating two versions, which will be combined and sent to the President, who is threatening a veto. It controls nearly anything related to food, everything from crop subsidies to food stamps. It looks boring on the surface (unless you're really into distributing funds and studying crops), but once you get past that, it has effects on almost every part of life, from energy prices to foreign trade.

First off, the bill, not surprisingly, has an impact on the diet of the nation. But it is surprising that the impact is negative. That's right, the Farm Bill is making us fat. It subsidizes corn, soybeans and wheat, three crops that contribute to much of the carbs and fats from processed foods. That means farmers are more likely to grow these crops, making them cheaper to manufacturers and thus making fatty foods more plentiful and cheaper. Meanwhile, there's little support for growing produce, which is why those fresh veggies are more expensive than the Hostess cakes. However, this year's bill has given more focus to fruits and veggies, including a boost in funding for produce snacks for schools, so carrot sticks are back on the rise.

One of the more notable results of a farm bill is the food stamp program, which helps the poor buy food. In the version that passed the House, this year's Farm Bill increases funding to the program and expanding the number of people eligible. It's also helping out food banks, by giving them more support and more nutritious options. Believe it or not, the $4 billion boost for food stamps was one of the most contentious parts of the bill.

Even outside of food, the bill has far-reaching consequences. Much of the food produced domestically is exported or traded, so American agriculture affects much of the world's economy. Thus, the Farm Bill can do a lot to other countries, which is why the WTO has gotten involved in the discussions.

If the global economy doesn't interest you, how about energy production? Unless you've been under a rock for the past two years, you know alternative energy sources are hot topics, with people looking for clean options to replace traditional fuels. Ethanol has long looked like one of the best options, but ethanol production is zapping much of the corn supply. According to the laws of supply and demand, that's driving up the price of corn, even with the increased production from subsidies. Lawmakers looking to ease that problem have written in support for cellulose development, which would be used to beer mug.jpgproduce ethanol.

But all that energy talk may have much bigger consequences than just the environment. As farmers move to grow corn, what with the high demand and subsidies, they've moved away from other crops. Among others, there's been a decrease in barley and hops production, which means beer could be going up in price. And college students across the nation cry.

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November 14, 2007 - 5:59am
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