Panelists discuss contentious U.S. Farm Bill

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The UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources hosted a panel discussion on the federal Farm Bill Thursday night, featuring a number of prominent members of California’s agricultural and nutrition community.The panel discussion, “The U.S. Farm Bill: What’s at Stake?” was moderated by agricultural and resource economics professor Gordon Rausser and examined the merits of the bill as well as the future of food justice and agricultural sustainability. Panelists spoke to a full audience in Wheeler Auditorium and addressed a number of spectator queries.The bill, which is reauthorized about every five years, is a highly contentious piece of legislation that deals with everything from the nation’s commodity programs and rural development to conservation, agricultural research and food and nutrition programs, among other things. The bill is up for reauthorization in 2012.

Panelists included Michael Pollan, author and campus journalism professor, Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Ken Cook, president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group and Ken Hecht, executive director of California Food Policy Advocates.

Pollan, the most prominent of the four, underscored the importance of funding healthy, sustainable agriculture. He noted that “it’s easy to get lost in the weeds” in the complexity of the proposed 2012 update of the bill, which is passed about every five years. He argued the importance of using subsidies in the bill to alter the American diet from its current highly processed state.

“The least healthy calories are the cheapest,” he said. “We need to diversify our farms. We need to diversify our diets.”

Other panelists spoke to other aspects of the bill, including how it will affect agriculture in the state as well as the food stamp program for low-income families.

“(We need to) defend food stamps and subsidies,” Cook said. “(We need to) hook kids on fruits and vegetables when they’re in schools.”

Ross spoke of the growing problem of aging farmers, which, she said, may leave California — the state that produces the most crops in the union — in crisis.

“We need 100,000 new farmers,” she said, citing that for every five farmers over the age of 65, there is one farmer aged 25. “We have to double our agricultural output to produce food for a growing population.”

Sara Grossman covers research and ideas.