On the Farm Bill: A political rumble we should try to stomach
This election year, you may be tempted to ignore all things political until November passes. With the fiercest negative ads and partisan wars we have seen in our lifetimes, green pastures with grazing cows may sound more appealing than the sludge candidates are beginning to sling.
But! For those interested in farming, food or nutrition, there is an important piece of legislation worth our attention: the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 (also known as the “Farm Bill”). This is an “omnibus” bill – which means it includes billions of dollars (read: $994billion) worth of programs – everything from farm subsidies and crop insurance, to energy and forestry, to food stamps and school lunches. All of which can have a direct or indirect impact on what we eat.
You may be asking: why so much government and why so much federal money when it comes to our food? The quick answer: historical precedent dating back to the Great Depression from which we have never quite unraveled. When the economy took a nosedive in the late 1920s, nearly one quarter of Americans made their living in agriculture. Thus, President Roosevelt and Congress were spurred to pass legislation that propped up this part of the workforce and also ensured the nation had a food supply. Via the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 (part of the New Deal era), the government deemed certain crops desirable because excess supply could be stockpiled -- both to control prices in the near term, and plan for disaster in the long term. Alas, apples and carrots would not store nearly as well as grain and corn in tall silos. That may explain why we produce corn and soy more than anything else – a sign of our legislative inheritance. And as we all know, the food that is grown (especially cheaply) is what is available to consumers to buy. Again, this helps explain the glut of corn-based products on supermarket shelves.
Since the 1930s, the Farm Bill comes up for a congressional vote every five or so years. While tweaks have been made along the way, many of the main programs remain largely the same. Also, the makings of a Farm Bill play out more as a regional fight, not a partisan one – lawmakers are forced to balance the interests of Southern peanut farmers and Iowa corn growers, not conservative and liberal values necessarily. Of interest in this year’s proposed Farm Bill is the elimination of direct payments to farmers; that is, farmers today are guaranteed income from the government no matter their production output. The new bill moves away from that system to an insurance model for farmers who do not yield production as expected. The core issue created by this change: if the government moves to a risk management system (reliant on crop insurance instead of direct payments), farmers growing crops which lack historical yield data have severe difficulty filling claims for their alleged losses. Large-scale commodity crops with lots of data, like corn, are far more easily insured in that way -- hence, the struggle.
With this kind of shift in legislation, there are some basic economic decisions that farmers must make. Without predictability in their yields or income, farmers will move away from crops with uncertainty to those with more certainty. Thus, we – as consumers—may end up with cheap corn-based foods or stuck with price shocks – like last year’s 30% increase in the price of peanut butter.
Of interest to those who care about local farms, the Farm Bill includes conservation programs that affect land, water and soil use, as well as provisions to promote and expand horticulture – not simply commodity crop farming. In the 2008 version of the bill (which is in effect today and expires on September 30th), programs and spending were added as part of a new title called, “Horticulture and Organic Agriculture.” While the outlays pale in comparison to commodity programs ($0.4 billion vs. $41.6 billion), the inclusion is encouraging. Funds go to state agriculture departments to assist with specialty crop marketing and research – as well as mandatory new funding for farmers’ markets and for helping to transition local growers to organic production.
Regardless of your political leanings (or interest in politics at all), the impact of the federal Farm Bill on our daily lives – as taxpayers and as consumers of food – is worth our attention. While measures for reform may be subject to constant debate, knowing a little bit about the origins and scope of the legislation will show us where our tax dollars go and how they flow to the food we eat.
If you’d like to learn more about the Farm Bill and its evolution, here are a few good resources:
“Farm Bill Basics” [Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, 2012]
“Previewing the Next Farm Bill” [Congressional Research Service, 2012]
“The United States Farm Bill: An Introduction For Fruit and Vegetable Advocates” [Public Health Law Center, 2009]
To give you a sense of how the 2012 Farm Bill spending is likely to go:
Source: Congressional Research Service (http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42357.pdf)
Stay tuned in the next couple weeks to see how the final version shakes out!