Every four to six years, Congress hunkers down to write, debate, and pass the Farm Bill, a mammoth piece of legislation with sweeping implications for a surprisingly broad range of issues.
If you care about wetlands, or advocate for the hungry, or believe in better nutrition for schoolchildren, or just want to keep breathing clean air, you should pay attention to the Farm Bill. You will also want to follow the debate and horse trading around the omnibus bill -- which have already started and promise to kick into high gear this summer -- if you are concerned about issues as diverse as water quality, sprawl, genetic engineering, renewable energy, food safety, biodiversity, organic farming, corporate control of the food system, and the reinvigoration of rural America.
The 2002 Farm Bill generated some $80 billion in new federal spending, and much of it benefited large-scale producers and corporations that are running small-scale family farmers out of business. The 2007 bill will set key policies from then until 2012 and, no matter what deals are ultimately cut, will also be worth tens of billions. Consequently, lobbyists from multinational corporations and environmental organizations, family-farm advocates, tax reformers, and consumer-interest groups are working their legislators and each other.
And stakes are high. Four years ago budget surpluses abounded and Democrats controlled the Senate. As a result, programs that encourage sustainable farming and rural development made it through agriculture committees and into the 2002 Farm Bill. But given recent tax cuts, natural disasters, and the cost of waging war, Congress might feel less generous.
One of the most contentious issues promises to be the fate of commodity subsidies. What began as a progressive attempt to lift farmers out of the Great Depression has ballooned into a corporate boondoggle, as the government doles out billions in subsidies every year to growers of already overproduced staples like corn, soybeans, and wheat. The overwhelming majority of that money goes to massive farms and bloated cooperatives. In other words, subsidies wipe out family farms, promote toxic chemical farming, and gut market prices on staple grains, skewing the advantage to large food and agribusiness corporations.
Subsidies also have opponents overseas. Organizations such as Oxfam International have spent money to get out the message that U.S. farm subsidies depress prices for farmers in the developing world, leading to poverty and famine. Countries hit hardest have taken their complaints to the World Trade Organization, where U.S. and European farm subsidies have become the source of conflict; at last December's WTO talks in Hong Kong, farmers rioted outside the conference to protest subsidies.
With issues like these in play, you might think that the forces opposing big agriculture would stand united in their lobbying, especially when they're dealing with an antienvironmental Congress. In the past, though, such groups have found themselves at odds.
In 2002, for example, environmentalists wanted to offer a program to factory meat farms that provided grants for dealing with animal waste. Family-farming advocates insisted the move would reward the worst polluters. In the end, some environmentalists teamed up with industry lobbyists to push through their agenda.
Environmental and sustainable-farming groups hope things will be different this time. For starters, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has put up $4.5 million to bring them together to work on conservation issues and rural development. "This is a coalition that runs from conservation to hunger, the spectrum of the Farm Bill," says Andy Fisher, executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition. "If we hold the line together, maybe we won't get picked apart by Congress."
The Kellogg grant is not comprehensive, however. The foundation, established on the riches of the cereal giant, requested that some of the most important aspects of farm policy, such as restructuring farm subsidy programs and fighting corporate control in agriculture, should be left out of the grant-supported talks. Organizations like the Land Stewardship Project and the Western Organization of Resource Councils plan to take up those issues separately.
Another point in favor of small-scale, decentralized farming is the current fixation on homeland security. Under consolidated industrial agriculture, one microbe can wipe out an entire meat production facility; one strain of wheat rust can take out acres of genetically identical grain.
"When industrial agriculture fails, it fails miserably," says Scott Marlow of the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA. "The industrial model is efficiency through uniformity. A sustainable-agriculture model is stability through diversity. Homeland security is big right now, and these two models are going to be a big issue in terms of how we administer agriculture and what we support."
Conservation Security Program
This program pays farmers to incorporate ecofriendly practices, such as setting up buffer zones that prevent soil erosion or water pollution. The more they do for the environment, the more they get. The program, championed by Democratic senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Republican Gordon Smith of Oregon, was passed in the 2002 Farm Bill, but funding for it was gutted in years that followed because of pressure from the Bush administration. The program retains support in Congress, in part because it provides a farm subsidy mechanism allowed under international trade rules, so it might have a shot at funding in 2007.
Conservation Reserve Program
This program pays farmers to keep marginal and environmentally sensitive land fallow. It enjoys broad support as a way to limit the production of certain crops -- a means of maintaining higher food prices. (Low food prices, a direct result of overproduction, have led to the decline of the average American farmer.) Gun owners also favor it, as land set aside in CRP is often used as hunting ground.
With oil and gas prices soaring, sustainable-farming and clean-energy advocates believe that 2007 will be a ripe opportunity to ratchet up provisions for renewable fuels in the Farm Bill. R. Dennis Olson of the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy has high hopes for switchgrass, a soil-enriching, easy-to-grow crop that can be baled and burned in power plants in lieu of natural gas. (Olson concedes that scientists have yet to evaluate the efficiency and cleanliness of burning switchgrass.) Activists also hope to win more money for farmers who want to use wind and solar power.
Anyone who has driven along country roads lately knows that rural America has emptied out -- the people have left, and businesses have followed. Proponents of sustainable farming hope the next Farm Bill will include money for farmers to set up businesses such as canneries, butcher shops, and cheese-making facilities. The 2002 Farm Bill set aside $40 million a year in such "value-added producer grants," but the money has been cut every year since.
Farming advocates also want to strengthen programs in the Farm Bill that will support new farmers. The most exciting growth in farming is happening in small- to medium-size farms, and among women and minorities, says Mark Schultz, a policy director at the Land Stewardship Project: "We need to come up with policies that support that kind of growth."
Connecting Farms to Schools and Cities
Instead of offering greasy pizza and prepackaged french fries, schools could score a win-win by buying food from local farms. Students would get a healthier diet of fruits and vegetables, and local farmers would get a steady income.
Advocates are also looking to insert into the Farm Bill opportunities for farmers to sell their products in nearby cities -- at farmers' markets and via community supported agriculture, for example.
Livestock and Poultry
Those who raise animals are under considerable strain these days, as consolidation in the meat industry has been rampant. Activists want to push rules, such as the Captive Supply Reform Act and the Packer Ban, that would require large-scale meatpackers to buy livestock in an open, public manner and prevent them from using anti-competitive tactics to drive down the market price of livestock.
Poultry farmers are particularly burdened by consolidation in the meat industry, since they now have to assume most of the investment and risk when they're signing contracts. Advocates will push laws that will make those contracts fair.