Will We Modernize Farm Policy?

In recent years, important bipartisan progress has been made to food policy, including new food safety laws, new rules and incentives for healthier packaged foods, increased access to healthier foods, new rules to require healthier food in schools, and efforts to make food labels more transparent.

The next Farm Bill is an opportunity to make our farm policy as modern as our food policy. In particular, the next farm bill is an opportunity to fashion a farm safety net that encourages innovation, reduces our dependency on subsidies, opens new markets, and meets the reasonable expectations of ordinary Americans.

What do consumers expect?

First, we expect that our drinking water will be as safe as our food. Despite the progress that’s been made, farm pollution remains a leading threat to our drinking water. Voluntary conservation incentive programs are a critical part of the solution, but these programs must be reformed to treat consumers – not just farmers – as the customer by rewarding the best practices in the right places. As EWG’s new conservation database revealed, too many taxpayer dollars are flowing to projects and practices with too few environmental benefits.

What’s more, it’s time to face facts: voluntary incentives alone cannot meet the environmental challenges posed by farm pollution. Despite spending $40 billion on voluntary incentives over the last two decades, our drinking water remains polluted, Lake Erie turns green every summer, and there’s still a dead zone the size of Connecticut in the Gulf of Mexico. Unless we require basic environmental stewardship in exchange for farm subsidies, we can’t realistically hope to clean up our rivers, lakes and bays.

Of course, farmers do have other powerful incentives to solve this problem. Many farm families are among the 43 million Americans who rely on wells for their drinking water. Roughly one-fourth of these wells are contaminated, and farm pollutants like pesticides and nitrates are among the leading contaminants.

What else do consumers expect?

We expect to help farmers in times of need. But, we don’t expect that farm programs will provide unlimited subsidies. Under current law, any farm business – regardless of financial wherewithal – is eligible for unlimited crop insurance subsidies. While the top 1 percent of crop insurance subsidy recipients receive about $220,000 in premium support, the bottom 80 percent receive about $5,000.

It’s time to modernize our farm policy to be as modern as our food policy – and as modern as our farmers. To do so, we must apply the same reasonable limits to crop insurance subsidies that already apply to other farm programs. We must do more to produce the healthy food consumers are demanding, and we need to bring the same level of transparency to our farm programs as we do to our food.

While all of us would benefit from these reforms, the biggest beneficiaries would be those in rural America – where the impacts of a safety net rigged in favor of the most successful farm businesses, and the impacts of unregulated farm pollution are most strongly felt.

This text was originally presented as a speech to the Farm Foundation.

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