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Why The Farm Bill Matters

Monday, July 11, 2011

Healthy Food – Healthy Land – Healthy People

What is the farm bill?

It’s a huge and comprehensive piece of legislation that drives federal spending and policies on agriculture, nutrition and conservation programs. In just one year – 2010 – farm bill programs spent $96.3 billion. How those dollars are used makes a big difference to our health and the environment.

The farm bill is usually debated and passed every five years. The last one, passed in 2008, was formally named the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 and weighed in at 1,770 pages. By comparison, the 2010 health reform law, the Affordable Health Care for America Act, clocked in at 1,990 pages. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a comparatively trim 1,475 pages (in paperback).

Since the farm bill covers many topics, they are organized into fifteen “Titles.” They’re like chapters in a book. The three most important titles are “Title 1” or the “Commodity Title,” which deals with long-standing support programs for farmers who grow grains. “Title II,” the Conservation Title,” provides money and technical help to farmers to protect soil, water and wildlife. “Title IV” contains the all-important nutrition and feeding programs for low-income Americans, especially women, children and infants.

The farm bill sets legislators’ funding priorities across these areas.

What does the farm bill fund?

More than two-thirds of the authorized spending pays for food and nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (better known as food stamps) that helps low-income Americans purchase food. Other programs serve children or the elderly. The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program gives vouchers to seniors for farmer’s markets. The 2008 farm bill for the first time established a Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which provides fresh produce for kids’ snacks at schools.

More than one-fifth (22 percent) of the bill’s authorized spending is devoted to commodity crop supports and crop insurance, and 9 percent is ticketed for conservation programs. The remaining 1 percent goes toward trade promotion, loans for rural development, agricultural research and energy programs that assist in building facilities such as bio-refineries and wind turbines on farms.

If I’m not a farmer, why should I care about the farm bill?

The farm bill matters to you if you care what you and your kids eat, how government policies affect the cost and availability of healthy, chemical-free food and how clean your drinking water is.

What was wrong with the 2008 farm bill?

The US Department of Agriculture says fruits and vegetables should make up about half of the food on our plates. Yet, only a tiny fraction of the Farm Bill goes to support healthy fruits and vegetables, and many of the programs that support local and regional food systems have no budget going into the next Farm Bill. The 2008 version did comparatively little to provide healthy food to schools or expand the availability and affordability of local fresh fruits and vegetables.

The 2008 farm bill made a lot of promises about supporting conservation programs to protect water, soil and wildlife habitat, but those promises have largely gone underfunded – and unfulfilled.

Moreover, the 2008 bill continued programs that send big subsidy checks to the largest growers of just five commodity crops: corn, cotton, rice, wheat and soybeans – the raw materials for our industrial food system. The payments go out regardless of need. In fact, since 1995, just 10 percent of subsidized farms – the largest and wealthiest operations – have raked in 74 percent of all subsidy payments. The money kept on coming right through the five highest years ever for farm income. 62 percent of farms in the United States did not collect subsidy payments, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The subsidy programs also create perverse incentives for farms to grow as much industrial-scale, fertilizer- and pesticide-intensive crops as possible, with detrimental effects to water, soil and wildlife habitat.

Much of the crop subsidy money finds its way into the hands of wealthy absentee landlords living in cities, not struggling family farmers.

What are the politics of the farm bill?

Like most things in Washington, D.C., money has a lot to do with it. There are a host of well-funded and well-connected interests who benefit greatly from continuing the status quo. The list includes politicians looking to fill campaign coffers, corporate agri-chemical and seed giants like Monsanto and Syngenta seeking to expand their markets, and the public relations and lobby organizations that cash in by ensuring that Congress delivers the same suite of government giveaways to the same well-off farm operations and landlords year after year.

Since the fraction of Americans directly engaged in farming is down to just 2 percent, the bill is largely crafted and debated out of the spotlight. Historically, the process of writing the bill embodies the worst kind of bipartisan log-rolling and horse-trading. Subsidy payments go almost entirely to certain regions– Iowa gets much more than, say, Nevada – so politicians from both parties in subsidy-heavy states like Iowa have a vested interest keeping the money flowing.

Meanwhile, the fact that nutrition programs for poor people come out of the same bill and go largely to urban constituencies makes it much harder for Congress members from cities like New York and Chicago to vote against it.

In an often-frenzied legislative schedule, it’s also difficult for members without much knowledge of agriculture to get a handle on the ins and outs of the bill. Dozens of programs in the bill are layered upon each other. This byzantine maze is understood by only a handful of staff and lobbyists, which also helps to protect the status quo.

When was the first food and farm bill signed into law and why?

The first one was signed into law as a temporary measure in 1933 as a way to aid farmers suffering in the Great Depression. Since then it has come before Congress roughly every five years. Nutrition programs were added to the farm bill in the late 1970s to win the support of lawmakers from urban districts. The 2008 bill had a price tag of nearly $300 billion. It expires in 2012.

Do other countries also have agriculture support systems?

Yes, many do, and they often lead to international trade disputes as nations seek to protect their own farmers against foreign competition.

What are EWG’s objectives for the next food and farm bill?

Since a lot of the money does go to nutrition programs like SNAP, it’s time to start calling it a food and farm bill and to increase investments in healthy food programs. A top priority is to protect food assistance programs for the neediest, especially in the lingering aftermath of the 2008 recession. EWG will also work to improve and expand programs that increase access to healthy foods, strengthen local and regional food systems and provide new markets for diversified, local, sustainable and organic growers and ranchers.

EWG would also like to see a large chunk of the farm subsidy dollars shifted to conservation programs. This would help fund programs that protect soil, water and air quality, preserve wildlife habitat and conserve energy and water. EWG also wants to reform crop insurance – which has ballooned into another lavish subsidy for producers. Finally, EWG believes in energy provisions that encourage truly sustainable biofuels and biomass energy alternatives, not heavily subsidized, inefficient and environmentally damaging corn ethanol.

The 2012 legislation needs to shift American food and farm policy toward paying farmers to protect water and soil, providing incentives for crop diversity and creating a level playing field for all farmers.