Food Fight: Why Agricultural Policy is Caught in an Urban-Rural Culture War

Average "rural folks" do not benefit from the subsidies the USDA is quick to defend

"I took it as a slam on rural America" US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said to economic policy blogger Ezra Klein, in response to a post on the advantages of cities, which ended with a short critical remark on "the raft of subsidies we devote to sustaining rural living."

This disagreement led to a discussion between the two men, and a follow up by Klein on the concept of values and rural subsidies. Unfortunately, both Klein and Vilsack failed to delve deeply into policy ideas, but rather focused on Vilsack's recurring argument that "folks" in rural America are "good people" and therefore deserving of these subsidies. The topic of debate --"rural subsidies"-- was neither unpacked nor clearly defined, leading to a nebulous conversation that kept returning to "values."

As Brian Depew at Civil Eats points out, farm commodity subsidies primarily help a limited number of mega-farms, and the reality is that the "system is literally undermining the economic and social foundation of rural communities."

Depew points to a 2007 study from the Center for Rural Affairs which confirms that these commodity subsidies are skewed toward the largest farms, and in fact, help the "good folks" Vilsack is so committed to defending, very little.

The continuing consolidation of farms will lead to fewer farmers, and therefore reduced population in many rural areas within the United States. Vilsack used evidence of the strong tradition of military service from rural areas as evidence of his argument that rural dwellers have a different set of values than their urban counterparts: "... while it represents 16 percent of America's population, 44 percent of the military come from rural America." It is likely that the opportunity the military provides is more appealing to a person from a town with a dwindling population and lack of growth than a young person experiencing first hand economic growth in a vibrant urban environment.

While someone who was sincerely interested in the well-being of America's rural population would shun subsidies for mega farms, and instead support infrastructure development in rural areas, this argument shamefully gets lost in the now all-too-familiar culture debate that has gobbled up food policy.

Glenn Beck has argued that basic food safety legislation is in fact a government plot to raise prices on meat and encourage people to experiment with vegetarianism. Rush Limbaugh advocated the Twinkie diet, and argued that Michelle Obama's focus on healthful eating was one big lie. Advocates of better nutrition were clumped together with elite "foodie" types, as judgmental snobs trying to impose their lifestyle on everyone else.

The reality is that, as the existence of the "diabetes belt" exemplifies, eating habits and food access do tend to break down on socioeconomic and geographical lines in the United States. Food is tied up in income equality and class, all while being intimately connected to our everyday sustenance. Food choices are incredibly personal.

The Klein-Vilsack debate was just an iteration of the continued obfuscation employed by those opposed to an increasingly democratic food system.

Mega farms, the USDA, and segments of congress have enjoyed being in control of the food debate for some time. As the conversation is opening up to a wider, engaged audience, and more citizens show interest in the origins of their food, these old power structures are being challenged. When promoters of the status quo only have bad ideas to cling to, they invoke a cultural debate to avoid addressing the real policy challenges at hand.

Luckily for sustainable food advocates, these desperate and defensive arguments are a sign that the system is indeed beginning to change for the better.

Photo Credit: Effervescing Elephant