Bernie Sanders on Agriculture
Bernie Sanders recognizes the need for sustainable agriculture and access to healthy food and education for working families. By supporting legislation that invests in family farms, affordable nutrition, and protecting consumers and immigrant workers, Bernie has made positive changes to one of our country’s most vital industries.
Bernie has a long track record of supporting family farms and bolstering U.S. agriculture.
How big is family farming in the United States?
How does family farming differ from other farming?
Most farming doesn’t benefit greatly from economies of scale, and local knowledge gleaned by these farmers over generations of farming practice help them produce safe and affordable food for millions of Americans.
Are small family farms better for the economy?
Family farming has a major impact on local economies, especially in rural areas. Farmers tend to buy feed and fuel from local sources, use community banks, and sell to local markets. The United Nations recognizes the importance of family farms and declared 2014 the National Year of Farming, crediting small farms with the ability to contribute to food security and reduce poverty.
What about the environment?
Family farms are more resilient to climate change due to their greater genetic diversity, local knowledge, and likelihood of using livestock and crop breeds suited to the local environment. Their success is directly related to safe, sustainable practices and preserving land and water resources. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, for these farms “land, water, biodiversity, and soils are not only means of production, but a long-term investment that needs to be nurtured.” Moreover, family-farming practices are more efficient and adaptable to climate change.
OK, so what should I know? Is there a problem?
Many family farms are struggling economically and are being forced to close. For example, the demand for low in-store prices that don’t cover production costs have forced about 50 percent of Vermont’s dairy farms to close in only ten years. Additional threats include the criminalization of seed sharing as a result of free trade agreements, limited access to viable land, impacts of climate change, and reduction of government support that often aims to assimilate small farms into bigger organizations.
How has Bernie helped farmers?
As a senator, Bernie has been active in keeping family farms in business, fighting for fair prices for goods and encouraging access to healthy, local food. He has fought particularly hard for Vermont’s dairy farms, supporting numerous bills for their aid including the Farm Bill of 2014 — an effort to stabilize these farms by helping them manage risk and produce more efficiently. He has encouraged schools to use local products in meal programs and advocated for farmers markets. Bernie also supports the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2011, a bill that would expand and improve opportunities for beginning farmers and ranchers as well as institute several responsible environmental provisions.
Everyone has the right to access nutritional and food benefits regardless of income or mobility.
The U.S. is currently undergoing a crisis in poor nutrition and health.
We’re failing our obligation to meet the nutritional needs of many Americans, particularly those from vulnerable populations, which only exacerbates the obesity epidemic and hunger crisis. According to the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition, the typical American diet exceeds the recommended intake levels of sugar, fats, and refined grains. What’s worse, we eat less than the recommended amounts of vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, dairy products, and oils. Meanwhile in underserved communities, the combined lack of affordable, nutritious foods and physical activity resources make low-income and food-insecure Americans more vulnerable to poor health and obesity.
How does the U.S. fare compared to the rest of the world?
An apples-to-apples comparison is difficult. However, the World Health Organization currently ranks the U.S. 34th in life expectancy. This is despite having the 10th largest GDP per capita according to the World Bank. Meanwhile, rates of obesity have steadily increased since 1985 as calories from grains, fats, and oils have increased while fruit and vegetable consumption has plateaued.
What are we doing wrong?
There are several reasons that nutrition falls short in the U.S. The CDC has found that the typical adult only consumes fruits and vegetables an average of once a day each, falling short of the far higher recommended servings. Grocery stores and schools often don’t provide quality, healthy food, and the distribution systems that get fresh product from farms to sellers and communities are underdeveloped. Wealthier, whiter communities typically have better access to grocery stores than low income communities, communities of color, or rural areas. Many people are struggling to afford good food. SNAP benefits are being cut, leaving hungry many veterans, elderly, disabled people, and low-income families with children.
The outlook for child nutrition is also poor due to America’s rising obesity rates and concerns that school nutrition programs are feeding students processed convenience foods, sodas and candy, and fast food like french fries.
So tell me more about SNAP.
Many low-income households can’t afford to satisfy their nutritional needs without assistance. Nutritional assistance programs such as SNAP (formerly the Food Stamp Program) are an essential component in ensuring that the most vulnerable Americans get enough to eat.
So it’s food for people who don’t work?
Not quite. In 2012, 22 million households received benefits. Three-quarters of these households included a child, an elderly person, or someone with a disability.
An annual 2014 USDA report found that about four in ten SNAP recipients live in a household in which at least one person had earned income. A household’s gross monthly income generally must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line, or $2,144 (about $25,700 a year) for a three-person family in the 2015.
The majority of SNAP recipients are white (40 percent). Additionally, 25.7 percent are black, 10.3 percent are Latino (any race), 2.1 percent are Asian, and 1.2 percent are Native American.
But why do we need nutritional assistance programs?
Nutritional assistance programs primarily support low-income households with hungry children. More Americans now depend on SNAP benefits than ever before.
But if people can just get food stamps, what’s their incentive to work?
The SNAP benefit formula contains an important work incentive. For every additional dollar a SNAP recipient earns through working, his or her benefits decline by only 24–36 cents, which is much less than in most other programs. Therefore, families receiving SNAP benefits have a strong incentive to work longer hours or to search for better-paying employment. Furthermore, states create work incentives through the SNAP Employment and Training program, which funds training and work activities for unemployed adults who receive SNAP.
What does Bernie say about nutritional assistance programs like food stamps?
Watch Bernie talk about how important he believes these programs are in the context of Republicans calling for billions of dollars’ worth of cuts to such programs in this March 2014 interview:
So what has Bernie done about it?
Bernie has been a staunch advocate for the poor and food insecure, sponsoring and supporting several pieces of legislation to improve nutrition for all Americans — children, in particular. The Wise Investment in our Children Act of 2015 (WIC Act) was passed in order to expand the benefits of the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 to a greater number of women, infants, and children.
He supported The Summer Meals Act of 2014 and the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013, which improves the nutrition of future generations by providing grants to schools for local produce, increasing education about nutrition and agriculture, improving low-income health programs, and encouraging research-based agricultural practice.
Bernie invested in future nutrition and family farms through his support of the Growing Safe Food Act of 2009, which focuses on educating farmers about safe, sustainable, and efficient farming practices.
He also supports the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which would improve access to healthy foods in underserved areas and revitalize low-income communities by providing loans and grants to food retailers to open in underserved, urban, suburban, and rural areas.
Learn more about Bernie’s support for public assistance and healthcare programs here.
Of the approximately 22 million farmworkers in the U.S., nearly eight in ten are immigrants and approximately six in ten are undocumented. Bernie wants to create a path to citizenship for immigrant workers.
What’s wrong with our current immigration system?
Currently it’s nearly impossible for foreign farmworkers, who don’t have family living in the U.S., to immigrate here legally. Those who are able to apply for legal status face lengthy or indefinite wait times in addition to expensive application fees that make legal immigration virtually impossible. Undocumented immigrants – farmworkers and others – live in society’s shadows for fear of deportation and are subject to exploitative labor practices like wage depression and substandard living conditions.
What has Bernie done to support undocumented agricultural laborers subjected to such conditions?
How does undocumented agricultural labor in America affect the rest of us?
According to several academic sources cited in a report by the Hamilton Project, illegal immigrant labor can drive wages and standards of living down for all farmworkers regardless of citizenship status, while legalized immigrant labor can drive up wages but maintain lower prices for consumers.
And of course, immigration also increases diversity, which contributes to the fundamental nature of what makes us who we are as Americans. In a June 2015 speech, Bernie said, “We are a nation of immigrants. That is, in fact, the strength of America.”
So what will Bernie do to reform our immigration system?
Bernie wants to create a path for citizenship and greater access to opportunity for the 11 million undocumented people in America, while protecting our borders and reforming our visa system. Learn all the details at the Immigration issue page.
GMOs are a source of controversy. While Bernie does not believe that GMOs are inherently harmful, he supports the rights of consumers to have access to information about the food they purchase.
People have the right to know what’s in their food.
While Bernie does not oppose GMOs, he proposed a farm bill amendment supporting the labeling of GMO products. He feels that people have the right to know what is in their food so that they can make an informed decision on whether or not they want to consume it. Because the FDA already requires the labeling of over 3,000 ingredients, additives, and processes in our food, it makes sense that people should know if it contains GMOs.
So what exactly are “genetically modified organisms”?
GMOs are basically just plants that have been altered by scientists. Technically, they are “organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.” Scientists can engineer a plant to, say, resist herbicides or even specific weather conditions.
What’s wrong with that?
Opponents argue that there are potential negative health and environmental impacts. It is important to note that criticisms of GMO’s rarely have scientific backing. This paragraph in a Scientific American article paints a clear picture of the situation:
“Critics often disparage U.S. research on the safety of genetically modified foods, which is often funded or even conducted by GM companies, such as Monsanto. But much research on the subject comes from the European Commission, the administrative body of the E.U., which cannot be so easily dismissed as an industry tool. The European Commission has funded 130 research projects, carried out by more than 500 independent teams, on the safety of GM crops. None of those studies found any special risks from GM crops.”
Other criticisms revolve around economics rather than health and safety. These critics worry that there’s a risk this technology will be used to sue farmers for seed-patent infringements. Furthermore, many argue that Monsanto’s practices undermine the freedom of small family farmers to manage their crops:
“They are using intellectual property rights, especially patents, to separate farmers from a fundamental means of production,” said University of Wisconsin Professor Jack Kloppenberg. “Control of the seed is, in many ways, control over the entire food supply.”
Wait. Should I be concerned about Monsanto?
Bernie has gone on record to point out that Monsanto has threatened to sue Vermont for passing a bill that would require their food to be labeled. This led to the bill being overturned. Bernie has also complained that Monsanto, like other large multinational corporations, wields too much influence over Congress. Indeed, records show that Monsanto spends several million dollars on lobbying every year, peaking at almost $9 million in 2008 alone.
What about GMOs?
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. As noted above, the scientific consensus is that GMOs are safe to eat. That said, many countries have either banned GMOs or require labeling. And polls consistently show that a large majority of Americans support labeling.
On the other hand, National Geographic published a magazine cover in 2014 which depicted the anti-GMO movement as part of a larger “war on science” in America, alongside climate change denial and vaccination-autism links.
(Learn about Bernie’s stances on related topics at the Science & Tech issue page.)
So, most people support labeling. Science says that GMO’s are safe. Why not just label?
It’s the choice of each individual to decide what they put in their bodies. Bernie feels that since GMOs are claimed to be healthy and safe by the largest producers of GMOs, then there should be no problems advertising it. Many proponents of GMOs oppose labeling because they feel that doing so would spread the misconception that GMOs are not safe – Monsanto argues that labeling its food would scare consumers. On the other hand, many pro-science GMO supporters argue that labeling makes sense as it shuts down the argument from anti-GMO advocates that there is something to hide.
What is Bernie saying about these issues?
What legislation has Bernie supported in reference to GMOs?
In June of 2012, Bernie proposed the Sanders/Boxer Amendment to the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012, which would give states the right to require labels on food products that are genetically engineered. This bill was overturned by the Senate.
Bernie proposed an amendment to a farm bill in May 2013 that would allow states to mandate labeling on any food or drink with ingredients that have been genetically modified. The bill was once again defeated in Congress despite the fact that the citizens of states like Vermont, Washington, and California want the right to know what is in their food.