Shifting Prospects for a New Farm Bill

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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.

Sources: Oxfam, Land
Stewardship Project
, Thomas, Huffington,
National
Sustainable Agriculture Coalition
, Christian
Science Monitor
, Think
Progress
, Agweek,
Grist.

Image by Saffron
Blaze
, licensed under Creative Commons

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