The Farm Bill: A Link Round-Up

by Bettina Elias Siegel on June 14, 2012

As you may know, the Senate is currently debating the next Farm Bill, a critically important piece of legislation which will have far-reaching effects on the way Americans eat.   (Take a look at this infographic showing how the 2008 Farm Bill has impacted the American diet — and our health.)

I’m leaving to experts the in-depth reporting on this behemoth (over 1,000 pages, with a near trillion dollar price tag), but I did want to share  some links if you need to get up to speed:

NPR has an easy-to-digest report on why the Farm Bill matters to everyone.

For a more in-depth review, check out this report by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Marion Nestle of Food Politics expresses her dismay at the bill’s lack of focus.

One of the most contentious issues is the switch from direct crop subsidies for farmers to subsidized crop insurance, a proposal which is currently dividing the Senate on regional lines.  More here.

But in an open letter to Congress, everyone from Eric Schlosser to Chef Ann Cooper argues that it makes no sense to provide “unlimited crop insurance premium subsidies to industrial-scale growers who can well afford to pay more of their risk management costs,” and instead suggests

. . . . modest reforms to crop insurance subsidies that could save as much as $2 billion a year. Half could come from payment limits that affect just four percent of the growers in the program. Congress should use these savings to provide full funding for conservation and nutrition assistance programs and strengthen initiatives that support local and healthy food, organic agriculture and beginning and disadvantaged farmers. These investments couldsave billions in the long run by protecting valuable water and soil resources, creating jobs and supporting foods necessary for a healthy and balanced diet.

Doesn’t that make sense?

Meanwhile, the bulk of the bill’s cost – 80% — is allocated to SNAP, the federal food stamp program.  Senator Gillibrand of New York is fighting to restore a $4.5 billion proposed cut to food stamps, while Michele Simon of Appetite for Profit has published a report, summarized here, examining the ways in which three powerful industry groups benefit from (and lobby for) the food stamp program:  major food manufacturers, leading food retailers and the large banks which administer SNAP benefits for the states.   Until I read her troubling post, I had no idea of the secrecy surrounding the SNAP program.

And, of course, there are the usual political shenanigans.  Take a look at Wonkette’s list of some of the decidedly, ahem, non-agricultural amendments to the bill.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

mommm!!! June 14, 2012 at 9:55 am

I can usually cut through the garble and understand what the heck they are talking about, but even I was confused. I think when most people hear ‘farm subsidies’ they think farm = where food is grown that we eat. However, what they don’t realize is that there are commodity crops, which include a lot of industrial stuff that we don’t eat, or are heavily processed to make them almost edible, which is where most of the subsidies are spent. Commodity crops are then gambled on in the financial district via derivatives (exactly like what blew up the housing market). People that grasp this concept want subsidies to end (like myself). However, the powers that be ultimately control big ag because they need sustainable resources for continued skimming via derivatives. It behooves them to keep producing as much commodity crops as possible for both export and for “cheap food” (what I call junk food or frankenfood) production for all the major food producers in this country. The link from SNAP to big business, including JP Morgan does not surprise me in the least.

If you zoom out and look at the bigger picture, it’s almost as if they need control of SNAP to control how much people spend on food. So, the less a populace has to spend on food, the chances of them buying the cheapest options grows exponentially, thus continuing the vicious cycle of ill health. Its kind of creepy. So they aim to make just enough cuts to the program to squeeze people even tighter, yet chronically fail to uumm….what’s the word?… regulate….people on the program from making poor consumer decisions on junk food purchases. Not to mention that most processed foods that should be in the junk food category are not and also that most processed foods are just flavored and colored clever rearrangements of the top three or four commodity crops. AND all industrial meat depends heavily on these same heavily subsidized industrial commodity crops.

So the response to the public to end taxpayer funds for these crops? A one thousand page clever rearrangement of funds that keeps doing the same thing….funding industrialized commodity big ag while making healthy food an even further reach for lots of people both from the taxpayer subsidized end to the SNAP user end. It’s classic food politics spawned from vertical integration in big ag. And it’s so confusing that no one will be able to understand it and therefore will be hindered to fight it.

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Eric June 14, 2012 at 11:03 am

Great reply – I completely agree. There is no historical evidence that the billions of dollars spent on subsidies is doing any real good. These were originated back in the 1920′s and ’30′s when there was at least some reasonable argument for them. Now, however, those arguments are no longer valid. 80% of subsidies go to the top 20% of farm producers – those with the balance sheets to carry their own weight.

Also, as you mentioned, the subsidies don’t support ALL crops, but only a very narrow range, while almost completely abandoning fruits, vegetables, and nuts, which are the crops we need to eat more of.

Unfortunately, now that they’re in place, and large companies with large pockets are able to spend tremendous sums of money lobbying for their interests, the odds of any substantial changes to the bill are approaching zero.

Any time there is talk of reducing or eliminating the subsidies, cries go out that “food prices will soar”, or “farmers will go out of business and we won’t have enough food.” In reality, we spend less than 10% of our income on food, and the price of food is only moderately affected by the price we pay farmers – most of the cost comes from processing and distribution, which are not subsidized in any way.

So, even if corn prices rose 20%, the overall effect on food prices would be minimal. And, in fact, may result in healthier options for people to eat because things like high fructose corn syrup wouldn’t be so inexpensive to include in everything from cereal to hamburgers.

Besides, the $15B we paid in 2010 (10% of operations received 74% of all subsidy dollars, by the way), could be better spent, either to provide incentives for more sustainable food practices, or simply to provide a tax break to lower income families to help them afford the marginally higher food costs.

Ah, if only real change would actually happen.

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mommm!!! June 14, 2012 at 10:38 pm

Right?! Imagine a government without lobbyists. I think I’d like that.

The absurd amount of oil it takes to make hfcs is unreal. The process is actually more than 20 steps long. There is like 3 to 5 steps in make white sugar from cane sugar and less steps if it’s brown. Also, the corn used to make hfcs is not the corn on the cob we eat. It’s made from inedible corn. Wtf is inedible corn anyway?! Why would we even grow that junk? AND….corn is a super heavy feeder crop, so it sucks the life out of the soil every time it’s grown.

I’m fortunate in the fact that I live in a state where family farms still exist and produce here is probably just a bit lower than the national average. Everyone should have that.

AND….why can’t subsidies go to unemployed people to start local farms? Can you imagine how outraged big ag would be over that?!

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EdT. June 14, 2012 at 11:53 am

I had an uncle who used to be a farmer – and his opinion of the “farm bill” even back then was not repeatable in mixed company. Unfortunately, without those subsidies it was pretty well impossible to make a living at farming.

~EdT.

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mommm!!! June 18, 2012 at 8:21 pm

The inputs are ridiculous, not to mention diesel and labor. Then you get lowballed at market because consumers have been conditioned on artificially low prices from the big ag giants.

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DougW June 14, 2012 at 2:14 pm

The obvious question should be:

” Why do we need an ‘agriculture-department’ at all ” ?

That 1,000 page USDA bill in merely a comical symptom of the fundamental problem.

Agriculture isn’t even mentioned in the U.S. Constitution.
That should tell you something about the purpose and limits of federal government.

The federal interest in an agriculture department didn’t even arise until the mid-19th Century… with a tiny office in the U.S. Patents Office concerned with seed development & science.

Now we have a vast, corrupt Federal bureaucracy primarily concerned with subsidizing large agricultural & food corporations, protecting them from competition, and assuring that American consumers pay very high prices for food and commodities. The Food Stamp program is outrageously misdirected, inefficient, and expensive — overlapping 2 dozen other Federal welfare programs, that are similarly wasteful. But the USDA behemoth is extremely profitable for fat-cat politicians and big-business — so it continues & grows, unchecked.

The rational solution is to entirely abolish the USDA.

America does not need an “agriculture department” in this 21st Century
{… and honestly never had a need for one, ever}

Any minor USDA functions which some people might (mistakenly) deem worthwhile… could easily be absorbed by other existing federal/state/local agencies, at great savings.

Solving problems requires identifying root causes.

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mommm!!! June 14, 2012 at 10:30 pm

Well, I think we need regulation on food producers via the USDA. Where it gets horribly distorted is when people who are in decision making positions at agencies like these are basically on a revolving door between top government agency posts and private sector top posts in big food producer companies. This constant revolution keeps the agencies toothless. For example, one of the current supreme court judges was the top attorney for Monsanto. He was also caught lying about receiving funds from big ag. His excuse was, “I didn’t know I couldn’t do that” and “I forgot” and “It was given to my wife, not me”. See what I mean? This kind of thing is saturating our food policies, politics, and ethics.

But farmers already have access to crop insurance. In the event of a natural disaster or any kind of weather that stunts or kills a crop the crop insurance covers it. So I’m not sure why there needs to be MORE insurance or DIFFERENT insurance or what have you.

We need an agricultural office because farming is complicated. It’s not like you just toss out some seeds, spray it with water and voila…..you have a crop. Also, we import and export crops and that is complicated. Sure, it could be simpler, but when you have as many hands in the pot as we do now, it’s probably nightmarishly complicated. Not to mention there are thousands of rules and laws. I’d compare it to the tax code. Big ag has really made that aspect obscene (as you can see by the farm bill) . Now there’s even patents and patent infringement thrown into all that mess. Don’t even get me started on gmos and cloning and all of THOSE rules and laws. Pharmaceutical and chemical companies are involved. Wall Street is involved. The EPA is involved. A grotesque amount of politics is involved. Lawyers are involved. Lobbyists by the truckload are involved. And at the end of all of that, are people who just want to feed their kids a steak and a salad without them dying a week later, or tossing up their guts for two days, or hitting puberty at age 9, or becoming obese and diagnosed with type 2 diabetes….it goes on and on.

Food should be clean, it should be nutritious, and it should be free of deadly bacteria. I don’t think that’s asking a lot. I wouldn’t mind paying subsidies at all as long as it went to that kind of food model. But it doesn’t and that pisses me off. So even if I don’t purchase the products, I’m still paying for it with my taxes. I think the people should be able to vote for WHICH types of farms they want the subsidies to go to. Because I’d vote for organic every time. (ack I’m getting preachy again…must…stop….)

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Coolernearlake June 18, 2012 at 7:04 pm

Sorry, but DougW has presented a classic “straw man” argument here. He’s totally oversimplified the situation, then wants to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

If the problem is a bad farm bill, the real solution is a GOOD farm bill. And it should be mentioned that one of those “minor USDA functions” that the USDA runs is the school lunch program. There are real children in my school district who would go hungry if DougW had his way.

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EdT. June 19, 2012 at 5:37 am

Taking a “devil’s advocate” position: what is a “good” farm bill? And, why is a centralized bureaucracy better for managing school lunchrooms than turning the money (and the control) over to local school boards?

BTW, I am *not* in favor of children going hungry. I *am* in favor of more localized control, as it is one way to give the power back to us (taking it, and the influence, away from the lobbyists.)

Just something to think about…

~EdT.

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