Last week, the United States Senate passed its version of the farm bill – so why should you care?
Beyond the fact that this massive piece of legislation costs the US an average $97 billion a year, the bill also determines the composition of our school lunches, food stamp programs, forestry and conservation programs, farm subsidies, and crop insurance. In fact, roughly 80 percent of the “farm” bill has little to do with farms or farming. This omnibus policy is expansive, and has a significant (perhaps more than you might think) influence in determining what many of us do, or don’t, eat.
The farm bill (also known as the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012) has been a contentious topic in recent decades. Defendants argue that the bill “strengthens top priorities, streamlines and consolidates programs, and reduces the deficit.” Conversely, critics have accused it of many problems including (but certainly not limited to) financially sustaining agribusiness’s one percent, promoting mono-crop and industrial agricultural practices, making junk food cheaper than fresh food, and dumping commodity crops on foreign markets.
According to the NY Times, the Senate’s markup is not a revolutionary departure from the bill’s most recent predecessors. It does, however, attempt to restructure support for young farmers and ranchers, organic growers, and fruit and vegetable production. For example, it includes provisions for:
- Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program - Expanding the Farmers Market Promotion Program to include developing food hubs and doubling funding to $20 million per year
- Hunger-Free Community Incentive Grants – A new local fruit and vegetable incentive program to increase purchases by SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) customers at farmers markets and other healthy food retailers with mandatory funding totaling $100 million over five years
- Specialty Crop Block Grants - Funding increased to $70 million per year from the current level of $55 million
- Healthy Food Financing Initiative - Authorization for funding up to $125 million for healthy food retail in underserved communities
- Improving ease of SNAP redemption at farmers markets, mobile markets and CSAs – Authority to establish pilot programs to test mobile technology and online ordering as well as ease SNAP redemption at community supported agriculture (CSAs)
- Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program - Mandatory funding maintained at $20 million per year
- Introduction of a five-state Farm-to-School pilot project allowing for locally sourced food in place of USDA commodities
- Maintains funding for rural development programs, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, and allocates modest funding to the Outreach and Technical Assistance Program for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers (Section 2501)
- Requires conservation compliance for crop insurance recipients
- Caps payments on for commodity programs
- Limits federal subsidies for crop insurance policies for farmers with high adjusted gross income
- Provides better crop insurance coverage for organic farmers and whole farm revenue insurance for highly diversified farms
At the same time, the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 (aka the farm bill) proposes $4.5 billion in cuts to the SNAP. This cut would reduce benefits to approximately half a million food insecure families by $90 a month, according to the Community Food Security Coalition. Moreover, the act proposes a $3.7 billion cut to conservation programs that encourage farmers to not farm highly erodible land on working farms and ranches.
These numbers may seem insignificant when compared to the near trillion-dollar 10 year farm bill budget, yet now is the time to invest in a clearer and fairer food and farming system. To borrow the words of Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group:
“When conservationists stood our ground and fought, we won against the supposedly invincible crop insurance industry. Too many in the conservation community didn’t fight at all…As a consequence, conservation funding took the largest proportionate hit in this bill. For the “food movement,” the Senate farm bill has been another, rather sobering reminder that until we develop political muscle to match our passion for a sustainable food system, we’ll continue to see billions of dollars misspent on industrial agriculture.”
The House’s draft of the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 could be released as early as this week. Considering all that this legislation will determine during the near future, those of us who are passionate about a “sustainable” food system should be contacting our policymakers. To stay informed about farm bill developments, as well as to communicate with your representatives, check out the following links:
- United States Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, & Forestry
- United States House Committee on Agriculture
- “Why The Farm Bill’s Provisions Will Matter To You,” NPR
- Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics” Blog
- Slow Food USA
- Community Food Security Coalition
- Food & Water Watch
A must watch video:
“The American food system doesn’t make it easy for small farmers to get their healthy food to your home, but meet two farmers who are trying: Ricky Horton and Sherilyn Shepard. They’re siblings who grow tomatoes, cucumbers, and other vegetables in southwestern Virginia. Their livelihood is filled with uncertainties ranging from unpredictable weather to changing immigration laws. Here’s their story.”