What We’ve Sown

The nation needs better coverage of the Farm Bill

The debate over the 2012 Farm Bill is already under way. Collin Peterson, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, conducted a series “field hearings” in farm country earlier this year to gather input from the public, and he hopes to have a bill on the president’s desk by the end of 2011.

We applaud the early start on this crucial piece of legislation. We urge the press to follow suit and commit to prominent, sustained, and substantive coverage of this debate—the kind of coverage that has been conspicuously absent on these issues.

The Farm Bill, which is renegotiated every five years, is a sprawling, complex piece of legislation that mushroomed from an emergency bailout for farmers during the Great Depression to arguably the most important force shaping our food system, farm, and land-use policies. It also has become a factor in energy policy, thanks to the steady expansion (and heavy subsidization) of ethanol.

America’s system of agriculture, defined and sustained by this legislation, places improving crop yield above all other goals. This focus on yield has made food in the U.S. relatively cheap and plentiful, but it also has become clear, thanks in part to good work by journalists, that the system has serious hidden costs. The tangle of farm subsidies ($15.4 billion last year)—the bulk of which go to the operations that need them least—get most of the attention in the debate over farm-policy dysfunction, but the problem is much deeper than that. There are environmental concerns, food safety lapses, and the appalling treatment of farm and processing-plant workers, to name but a few.

Agribusiness and commodity growers—the so-called farm bloc—effectively built the current system and dominate the debate. Breaking their grip to allow fundamental change will be difficult.

For real change to have a chance, the public needs a better understanding of the Farm Bill and how it affects them. This is a significant challenge for the press, one made even more difficult by the fact that the agriculture beat has withered. As America moved away from the farm, so did journalism. Between 1975 and 1995, the number of U.S. daily newspapers with a full-time agriculture writer dropped 62 percent, according to The Invisible Farm, by Thomas F. Pawlick. Coverage of how the food we eat is produced became an afterthought.

Agriculture became a business story and a political story, skewed toward the interests of agribusiness executives and other players in the farm-policy arena. There is still excellent coverage that departs from this top-down approach, but it tends to come in one-off projects—like the devastating series on the USDA that Mike McGraw and Jeff Taylor wrote in 1991 for The Kansas City Star, or “Harvesting Cash,” the 2006 series on subsidies in The Washington Post by Dan Morgan, Gilbert M. Gaul, and Sarah Cohen. The former won a Pulitzer, the latter was a finalist. Both covered a lot of the same ground and together showed how little has changed in farm policy. None of the reporters was on the agriculture beat.

Over the last decade, interest in how our food is produced and consumed has surged, thanks to books like Fast Food Nation and documentaries like Food, Inc. First Lady Michelle Obama’s focus on childhood obesity is helping to broaden awareness, too. The Farm Bill is about much more than food, but this heightened interest creates an opening for more and better coverage of the full debate. The current fiscal climate, in which anxiety over the deficit looms large, offers perhaps the best chance in recent memory to begin to make real change in costly, inefficient farm programs.

As the 2012 Farm Bill takes shape, journalists should devote less time to the incremental, insider drama on Capitol Hill, and more to explaining the issues and their consequences to a public that has little contact with the farm, but a huge stake in what happens there.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.