Next week, Congress resumes its efforts to reauthorize the federal farm bill, one
of the most complex and comprehensive pieces of federal legislation.
The Farm and Food Bill is Congress' blueprint for our food system. Certainly many of the core problems with our food system originate outside the farm bill, such as the dominance of agribusiness and the increasing international treatment of food as just another commodity to exploit for profit. But the farm bill can address problems such as hunger, unhealthy food choices, inadequate income for farmers and food workers, water pollution, and climate change. It can help correct the history of racial, ethnic, and gender injustice in agriculture.
The farm bill needs to fund the consumption of fruits and vegetables, rather than support a diet of overly processed unhealthy foods high in sugar (corn syrup) and fats (soy). It needs to support sustainable local farmers and address climate change and agriculture's major carbon footprint. It should promote food democracy and sovereignty, recognizing the right of people, not corporations and investors, to control what we eat and grow. It needs to embrace the grassroots movement for food justice that has spurred an enormous growth in organic farming, community-supported agriculture, urban farms, community gardens, and the demand for healthy foods in our homes, schools, and workplaces.
Last year's effort to rewrite the farm bill was a disaster. Fundamental reform was never a serious option. Despite a dramatic upsurge in hunger since the Great Recession in 2007, Democrats and Republicans focused on how to cut support for food stamps (SNAP). The other big target was to cut funding for conservation programs that seek to preserve farmland and reduce water pollution from runoff from farms. Congress also wanted to move subsidies for commodities into expanded crop insurance. And the wasteful program to subsidize turning corn into ethanol was ended.
However, Congress was unable to reach agreement in an election year, despite the historic drought and farm disaster in much of the country. Instead, a New Year's Eve 9-month extender - brokered at the last minute by VP Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations - swept aside the minimal reforms agreed to, swung subsidies back in favor of commodities (especially Southern farmers, rice, cotton, peanuts) and eliminated funding for dozens of small but critical reforms enacted in the 2002 and 2008 farm bills (e.g., Beginning Farmers; Socially Disadvantaged Farmers; Farmers' Market Promotion; National Organic Certification; Specialty Crop Research; Value-Added Producer Grants).
The Senate's farm-bill proposal is better than the House's, where the Republican / Tea Partiers want to gut the SNAP programs as much as possible. SNAP represents more than two-thirds of the spending in the farm bill. The Senate wants to cuts SNAP by $4 billion by reducing benefits for families in public housing by eliminating a provision related to HEAP (Home Energy Assistance Program). The Senate ignores however that current SNAP benefits are far too low to feed families, with SNAP running out by the third week of the month. So even as the number of Americans receiving SNAP has soared to 48 million, the lines at soup kitchens and food pantries continue to grow. Congress has also cut funding for many other federal feeding programs such as Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and senior meals. Seniors now make up a fifth of the guests at emergency food programs.
Senator Gillibrand (D-NY), who supports raising food-stamp benefits by 30%, will re-introduce a proposal to at least eliminate the cuts to SNAP by capping the profits of the ten largest companies selling government-subsidized crop insurance. Last year the proposal was defeated by 2-to-1 in the Democratic- controlled Senate.
There are a number of proposed reforms that should be included in the farm bill. The Local Farms, Food & Jobs Act (S.679 / H.R.1414) expands opportunities for local and regional food production and increases access to fresh, healthy foods. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act (S.837 / H.R.1727) expands access to land, credit, training, and crop insurance for the next generation of farmers. The Balancing Food Farm and Environment Act strengthens conservation, moving our agriculture system towards greater sustainability, helping farmers produce food with fewer chemicals and antibiotics, and providing more incentives to raise grass-fed animals. The Farm Program Integrity Act (S281) would place a hard cap on the farm payments an individual farmer can receive in a year and close long-abused loopholes.
George Naylor, past president of the National Family Farm Coalition, argues that Congress should start "by assessing the nation's needs for a healthy diet, the ecological limits of its ability to produce food, its cultural inclinations, and its regard for social justice including stabilizing rural economies and rural economic opportunity. Trade policy would limit importing cheap commodities or processed food to prevent the debasing of domestic agricultural policy."
A major problem with the American food system is that family farmers don't make enough from the crops they grow. Farmers receive less than 20 cents of every dollar from food purchases at supermarkets. American consumers spend much less for food than consumers in other industrial countries (yet tens of millions of Americans are at risk of hunger because they pay so much more for housing and health care). The farm "subsides" flow overwhelmingly to large, agribusiness, monocrop, factory farms, often owned by wealthy out-of-state investors, not small diversified and sustainable family farmers.
The economics of farming are challenging and confusing for most Americans. NFFC points out that "before America's agricultural policy was dismantled in the name of the 'free market', price floors ensured that farmers received a fair price for their crops. By setting the lowest price that could be paid for a commodity, price floors functioned somewhat like a minimum wage. They ensured that a company like Cargill could not buy corn from Farmer Jill for much less than it had cost Farmer Jill to grow the corn. Agribusiness hated these supply-management policies when they were enacted in the New Deal and lobbied against them for decades. In the 1970s, they found allies in government officials who believed in a strict 'free market' ideology."
Much of Congress' focus in the farm bill debate will be on moving subsidies from commodities (rice, corn, wheat, soy, cotton), which have seen record prices, to crop insurance. The U.S. commodity-subsidy program has been a major contributor to hunger and high food prices in developing nations.
A new report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that overly generous subsidies have transformed crop insurance from a ri sk-management tool to a farm income-support program. According to the study, taxpayers could provide corn and soybean farmers with a secure floor under their finances for no more than $6 billion. That's less than half of the cost of the crop-insurance program. The federal-insurance program cost taxpayers far more last year than the expense of traditional disaster relief. (Supporters of subsidized crop insurance argue that it avoids the need to provide relief one disaster at a time.) Since 2001, insurance companies -- many based in foreign countries -- have enjoyed $10.3 billion in underwriting gains paid for by U.S. taxpayers. In reality, taxpayers bear much of the risk under the insurance programs while the insurance companies primarily pocket the profits.
EWG also notes that without conservation requirements, the crop-insurance program encourages farmers to make risky planting decisions on marginal and erosion-prone land.
The farm bill has historically been antagonistic towards organic farming. This has changed slightly in recent years, with a small amount of funding allocated to help organic farmers with things such as research. There is support for reforming crop insurance to better reflect the economic reality of organic (and diversified) farmers. But the farm bill falls far short of moving our farm system away from over-reliance on chemical inputs. It continues to embrace the drive to genetically engineer our food system. Even minimal consumer protections such as labeling of GMO foods face an uphill struggle, while proposals such as a moratorium on the planting of GMO crops are off the table. And the proposals do little to help our food system deal with climate change.