Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Food Policy is a Land Use Policy

Michael Pollan, the author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," contributed an opinion piece to The New York Times this week that linked the federal government's subsidies of commodity crops to the health insurance debate.  An excerpt:

"[S]o far, food system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America’s fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet. To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup."

Thinking about the connection between farm policy and health care led me to begin to consider how deeply our federal farm policy influences local land use. 

For example, confined feeding operations, a popular topic amongst those interested in zoning, environmental issues, and land use, are encouraged by a farm policy that subsidizes the commodity crops fed to meat animals.  If grain were more expensive, farmers would be encouraged to shift to grass feeding rather than feedlots.  Such a move would have a ripple effect in some parts of the country, impacting the balance between ranchers and public grazing lands.

Flying coast to coast illuminates both the range/township/section method of dividing land in the Midwest and West (witness the neat squares of tilled soil in 160 acre units) and also shows the conforming influence of the farm policy.  I have spent time looking through the agricultural schedules from the 1880s.  The Nebraska farms I studied produced a dizzying variety of items -- animals kept for meat, eggs, milk, and fiber, along with fruit, vegetables, and several types of grain (corn, rye, wheat, oats).  Today, those same farms are largely dedicated to a single crop and perhaps a home garden.  Unless a farm is organic and within an easy drive of a good-sized population with busy farmer markets, it simply isn't economically feasible to continue that traditional model of farming.

Pollan ties together health care, the farm policy and land use near the end of his piece:

"Recently a team of designers from M.I.T. and Columbia was asked by the foundation of the insurer UnitedHealthcare to develop an innovative systems approach to tackling childhood obesity in America. Their conclusion surprised the designers as much as their sponsor: they determined that promoting the concept of a 'foodshed' — a diversified, regional food economy — could be the key to improving the American diet."

Just as some communities have used zoning codes to discourage confined feeding operations, it would be interesting to consider whether local land use policies could encourage a "foodshed" rather than commodity crops.  Or whether they would even want to.

Food for thought.  (Pardon the pun.  I couldn't resist.)

Tanya Marsh

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