FEASTA Turns 20: food policy, sustainability, and basic income – a U.S. perspective

Feasta will be celebrating 20 years since its founding at an event held alongside Afri’s Famine Walk on 18 May 2018.  The group Afri: Action for Ireland has organized an annual Famine Walk each year to commemorate a tragic event during the Great Hunger (Americans sometimes refer to it as the Irish Potato Famine) in 1847 when starving women and children were forced to walk 11 miles in the cold rain where they had been told they could find provisions, but then when they arrived, they were told there were none and had to walk back.  Afri relates the Walk to current suffering, inequality, and solidarity with the Global South, immigrants, and asylum seekers.

Feasta’s involvement with sustainable food policy over the years has included conferences on community supported agriculture (CSAs), submittals on government agricultural policy (such as this recent one), and local food and permaculture projects at the Cloughjordan Ecovillage and elsewhere.

Food policy intersects with many Feasta priorities such as those listed below (most Feasta submittals relate to the EU, but here I will focus on the United States, since that is where I live):


  • Low-income people may not be able to afford high quality food, and the economics of food production skew the availability and supply of healthy food.
  • Agricultural workers in the field, workers at food processing plants and at restaurants (dish washers, etc.) are often subject to very low pay and poor working conditions. In California’s Central Valley and elsewhere, the food economy is closely related to the immigration issues currently making headlines.

Energy, water, and environmental impacts:

  • Industrialized agriculture is very energy and water intensive, and a more sustainable food system would use less of both, as well as address impacts from excess packaging, agricultural chemicals like pesticides, and more.

Planning for impacts of a carbon price:

  • A future price on carbon would change the economics of industrialized carbon-intensive agriculture, including making fertilizers and agrochemicals more expensive, and making local food more competitive with long-distance food.

Subsidies for producers:

  • Subsidies for certain products warp the market for foods.  In the United States, major subsidies go to basic commodities such as corn, cotton, wheat, sugar and soybeans.  This results in sweeteners such as high-fructose corn syrup and sugar being artificially cheap and ubiquitous. Since much of the U.S. soybean crop is used to feed livestock, it is also a subsidy for (carbon-intensive) meat production.

Economic assistance to low-income consumers:

  • In the United States, the Farm Bill, reauthorized by Congress every five years, contains a program called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as “Food Stamps.”  The program currently helps more than 40 million low-income Americans buy groceries each month. The $70 billion food stamp program accounts for some 80 percent of the farm bill’s annual price tag. Although lawmakers have discussed removing it from the bill in the past, it has stayed in to entice votes from urban lawmakers who might not otherwise vote for questionable farm subsidies.

The blatantly political decisions around food subsidies reveal the lack of a so-called “free market” in a major sector of the economy that affects every food-eating citizen.  Likewise the welfare-era Food Stamps program is designed around many assumptions that deserve scrutiny, and perhaps a 21st century update.

First, what if subsidies to industrial agriculture corporations were replaced with a universal basic income to farmers?  Basic income is typically an unconditional payment, but in this case, some conditionality regarding sustainable agricultural practices could be added.  For example, part of a “food production dividend” would give farmers a “Space for Nature” payment where farmers become stewards of the land and support and encourage wildlife habitat and corridors to coexist.  Farmers could also qualify for payments for phasing out harmful chemical inputs such as those that disrupt pollinators.  Guaranteed income would provide security for farms facing increasing risk and losses as a result of hurricanes, drought and wildfires due to climate change.

Second, regarding food consumers, Food Stamps could also relate to basic income. Most of the politics in the U.S. around Food Stamps usually involves whether or not to add a work requirement in order to receive the benefits.  The assumption is that “lazy people” should not get “free handouts” from the government. [Author’s Note: The term “lazy” is often used to describe and put down people of color.]  The basic income approach goes in the opposite direction, recognizing the changes that have occurred in the economy over the past 50 years, and that millions of people cannot afford to put food on the table, even when they have one, two, or three jobs.  Basic income views people as inherently worthy of membership in society, and deserving of the basic necessities of life in our prosperous nation, regardless of their job status.  Food Stamps would seem to fit into this framework.  However, there are valid concerns about converting existing benefits programs such as Food Stamps into unconditional and universal programs such as basic income, if the “hidden agenda” is actually to scrap the current program without ever implementing a replacement.  For this reason, most basic income proponents are wary of the dismantling parts of the existing social safety net.  A safer approach would be to put in place the new basic income program first, before suggesting the reform or phase out of the previous program.

Advocates in the U.S. such as author Michael Pollan and others have been working over the past 10 years to connect the Farm Bill’s effects more explicitly with sustainability to address the environmental impacts of food production. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) was a champion for Pollan’s vision with his Food and Farm Act alternative (from 2014).

The U.S. Congress will be considering renewing the Farm Bill before the current authorization expires on September 30, 2018.  As Feasta members commemorate 20 years of innovative policy ideas, sustainable food policy will continue to be a top priority.  Going forward, Feasta can play a role in connecting a healthy, affordable, fair, sustainable  food policy to a type of basic income that recognizes the importance of the food commons both for food producers (farmers) and consumers (everyone).

Featured image: harvest. Author: Chris Johnson. Source: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/harvest-1329043

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members.