Shifting Prospects for a New Farm Bill



Later this year, the federal Farm Bill that was enacted in 2008 is set to expire. Although Congress already has plenty on its plate—not to mention the ongoing kerfuffle over Obamacare at the Supreme Court—there’s a good chance they’ll make room for this. Because of its size and scope, the direction the Farm Bill takes has a big impact not just on agriculture and farming communities, but also on environmental policy, trade, and the overall health and safety of Americans. Subsidies and payments to farmers and farming communities may be the most contentious portion, but the bill also doles out money for programs like food stamps, disaster relief, and conservation. Essentially, this is where the debate on U.S. food policy begins.

And every five years or so, when the Farm Bill comes up for renewal, that debate ignites again. A look at the most recent cycle gives some idea of what’s ahead. At the end of 2006, Oxfam published a briefing on the politics surrounding the then-current Farm Bill, which was set to expire the following year. For decades, the report argued, the Farm Bill has been skewed to benefit mostly the largest and most profitable farmers, at the expense of the little guys. Commodity subsidies—which make up the second largest chunk of the Farm Bill’s budget—go overwhelmingly to the small number of conventional, large-scale farmers who grow the “program crops” of corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans, and rice. The roughly 75 percent of farms that grow and sell other products (or program crop growers that are too small to collect support) receive just 8 percent of the Farm Bill’s subsidies. As a result, over the course of several generations, farms have become much bigger, and many smaller farmers have been pushed out. Oxfam also pointed to the underlying health effects of conventional and factory farming, and a food system that relies on processing artificially cheap foods like corn.   

Oxfam’s warning fell mostly on deaf ears. Especially in terms of crop subsidies, the 2008 bill was remarkably similar to the 2002 bill, with no big rethinking going on in Congress. A report by the Land Stewardship Project, while outlining some progress on conservation programs, criticized the bill’s overall failure to address the growing corporatization of agriculture. Tellingly, much of the problem lay with crop subsidies.

But even more revealing was the contentiousness surrounding the plan. Even though the 2008 bill differed little from a version passed uneventfully in 2002, the later version was only passed when Congress overrode Bush’s veto. Interestingly, while new conservation programs were indeed controversial, much of the Republican opposition came from concern over the total size of the bill, and just where those big crop subsidies were going.

Will this year be any different? Public awareness of these issues is growing. As Oxfam points out, fresh fruits and vegetables are increasingly more popular than over-processed corn and soybean creations. Organic farming is ever more fashionable, though many small farmers still struggle with how costly it is. CSAs and farmers’ markets are commonplace in urban areas throughout the country. Despite its low cost, Americans are much less enamored with processed food than they once were. Could a new Farm Bill reflect these trends?

It’s possible. As Huffington points out, when negotiations over the 2012 renewal began two years ago, organizations like the Environmental Working Group and the Land Stewardship Project seemed poised to make a larger impact on the new version. Predicting that commodity subsidies may be on their way out, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition proposed rewarding green farming practices, rather than subsidizing conventional techniques. As NSAC noted last week on its blog, recent Senate Ag Committee hearings seem to be moving in the right direction. While nothing is written yet, Senators were reportedly sympathetic to conservation concerns and farmers’ proposals to cut crop subsidies in favor of less constraining crop insurance programs. The committee may also be interested in reforming crop insurance to reflect environmental concerns and better serve beginning farmers. Such modest changes would be welcomed by millions of small-scale farmers.   

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