U.S. agriculture policy has grown fat and lazy–and hasn’t helped our waistlines either.

It’s tempting to take for granted summer’s bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables. But if you care about how that succulent tomato gets to your table, your beach reading should include delving into the Farm Bill, the much-overlooked legislation authorized by Congress every five years that sets the direction of the U.S. food system. The 2007 version could be a food, health, and environment bill, or it could continue, as it has since its inception in 1949, to dish out millions in subsidies each year to the growers of the five main commodity crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton. Congress will decide between local, organic apple pie or one filled with ersatz fruit oozing high-fructose corn syrup.

With Democrats now in charge in Washington, D.C., chances are good that there will be more money for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s conservation programs, which help farmers employ practices that improve water quality and reduce soil erosion. Currently, these programs account for a mere one percent of the $400 billion spent over the six-year life span of the Farm Bill. Legislators are already targeting more money for programs that prevent agricultural pollution, encourage sustainable farming, and distribute fruits and vegetables to schools. One bill, introduced by Representative Ron Kind (D-Wis.), would also promote clean-energy development on farms, which are often hugely dependent on fossil fuels.

One of the more interesting proposals in this year’s debate–particularly because it requires no funding–would permit institutions that buy food using public funds to favor local farmers. Allowing a geographic preference for procurement would result in “stronger farms and less farmland loss,” says Jimmy Daukas, director of the American Farmland Trust’s Farm Policy Campaign. In addition, the soaring U.S. obesity rate, spurred by subsidies to corn and soy (and a lack of support for fresh produce), might begin to shrink. When the Farm Bill is seen as a food bill, consumers and farmers will benefit. –Mark Winne

MORE INFORMATION Read Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill, by Daniel Imhoff with a foreword by Michael Pollan (University of California Press, 2007).