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.
But this is where things get complicated. While the Senate Agriculture Committee debates conservation policy, tea party Republicans in the House are set to challenge much of the current Farm Bill from an entirely different angle. Opposition to the 2008 renewal united an unlikely crowd, from small farmers to conservationists to fiscal conservatives, and that last group has lost none of its zeal. It may be hard for some to take the new GOP budget proposal all that seriously, but it does represent a potential challenge to decades of more or less bipartisan farm policy. For instance, under the GOP plan, says Think Progress, food stamps would be converted to a series of block grants to the states. So rather than a federal program that grows and shrinks by public need (as it did during the recession), SNAP would have a fixed limit, whether more people needed it or not.
Even more importantly, says AgWeek, the new Republican plan would cut commodity subsidies by a third, and cut the Farm Bill itself by $180 billion. Now, logistically all of that is very unlikely. Unlike the House, the Senate has a Democratic majority, and their version of the Farm Bill so far looks very different. What’s significant is that one of two parties in Washington wants to completely reshape U.S. food policy, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how much they want it. As Grist notes, there is a plan in place if both houses can’t reach an agreement, a little like that whole sequestration debacle last year during the deficit talks. In this case, however, the automatic changes would bring us back to 1940s-era policies that have very little relevance to the 21st century. Such a scenario could be downright dangerous.
So what exactly happens over the next several months is difficult to say. During the deficit talks last fall, Republican freshmen in the House proved that they are more than willing to double down on principle, even when high stakes call for pragmatism. At the same time, conservation groups and small farmers see 2012 as a moment of opportunity to reshape some of the Farm Bill’s most pressing anachronisms. It’s hard to predict how all this will shake out, what deals will be struck before or after the September deadline, and how much of this will be drowned out by looming elections. We could end up with a radically different food policy in this country, one that affects everything from school lunches and poverty programs to how we respond to the emerging threat of climate change. It’s a conversation we should begin soon.