Well Being

A Layman’s Guide To The 2013 Farm Bill

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bucolic American farm

Confused by the new farm bill? You're not alone. It's a messy, complicated piece of legislation whose moving pieces are liable to confound even the most ardent observers. It's also extremely important, with a major impact on what we grow in this country, how we grow it and what we eat.

With that in mind, I've tried to summarize some basic info about the farm bill. If you know nothing about this important debate, consider this a (semi-neutral) primer.

What is the farm bill? The farm bill is the primary law guiding agricultural and food policy in the United States. It was first passed in 1965, and has been renewed every five years or so ever since.

In 2008, Congress passed the tenth such farm bill, called the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act. It was kind of a disaster. In addition to massively raising federal agricultural spending, it increased subsidies for biofuels—a move the World Bank credits as one of the three biggest contributors to the 2007-2008 world food crisis.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced a new farm bill this year in the 113th Congress. Called the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2013, it passed in the Senate on Monday and is now headed for debate in the U.S. House of Representatives.

What's in the new farm bill? A lot. The proposed legislation allocates $500 billion in federal funds over the next five years. A few of its highlights (and I use that term loosely) include:

• Reducing funds for the food stamp program
• Cutting farm subsidies (down to $17 billion)
• Increasing funds for crop insurance programs for corn and soybean farmers
• Offers greater support for dairy farmers and beginning farmers
• Provides funds to expand Broadband Internet access in rural areas
• Creates a new non-profit foundation, the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research
• Provides $193 million in support for farmers growing crops that can be converted to biofuels
• Gives the National Organic Program increased enforcement over the organic seal

[It also creates a “Pilot Program to Eradicate Feral Swine,” which neither here nor there but I just wanted to tell you that.] 

What's the big deal? Any time budget cuts and additions are involved, there's gonna be controversy. But the farm bill's ability to stir up shit goes far beyond monetary concerns.

The overarching objection to this and previous farm bills seems to be that it distorts the marketplace for food in this country, which is unarguably true. Incentives in the farm bill continue to encourage the over-production of crops that are both wrecking our environment and making Americans fat.

Many say it offers too much assistance to already-wealthy agribusiness giants while stiffing small and independent farmers. Mark Bittman called the farm bill “welfare for the wealthy.”

Some people object to the increase in funds for crop insurance programs. From a Chicago Tribune editorial:

“The subsidies encourage farmers to obtain so much coverage that they take risks no prudent operator would take. They plant on unsuitable land, knowing that if a crop fails, they can make a claim. They usually plant corn, the nation’s No. 1 cash crop, which is in demand partly from companies that brew it into ethanol fuel — an industry that owes its existence to more government subsidies. With less and less risk of bearing a loss, farmers have started planting what's known in the heartland as “corn-on-corn.” Instead of rotating the crop in each field year by year, some farmers have been planting only corn. Corn last year. Corn this year. Corn next year. That's poor stewardship, contrary to the critical goal of sustainability. It contributes to soil erosion and depletes nutrients. It breeds pests and crop diseases. Yet government-funded crop insurance, along with other pro-corn policies, has made corn-on-corn a lucrative financial proposition.”

Others are concerned by its potential to cut funds for food stamp recipients. The Senate version of the bill would cut $4.1 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the House version? $20 billion). It does so by mainly by eliminating a program that coordinates low-income heating assistance with SNAP benefits—meaning the elderly and disabled are likely to be hit hardest.

For more information, check out farmbillprimer.org.

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