The Farm Bill Matters

The legislative behemoth is 700 pages of subsidies and subparagraphs. But if we want a healthy, sustainable food future, we have to get it right.

The House Agriculture Committee passed a draft of the Farm Bill in July that continued to reward commodity producers—growers of corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, and cotton—who are already earning record income

Photograph by David De Lossy/Photodisc.

Why did Congress let the Farm Bill expire on Sept. 30? You might suspect this piece of mega-legislation collapsed under its own colossal weight: over 700 pages, with 15 different spending categories totaling $100 billion per year, touching everything from corn subsidies to organics research to food stamps to rural enterprise development. 

Indeed, the Farm Bill can seem incomprehensible to anyone who’s not a policy wonk. I am a reluctant wonk. I first became interested in the Farm Bill because of its potential to do something that the free market does not: help landowners restore habitat and protect nature. But I quickly came to understand that the Farm Bill could be a solution to myriad food-related problems. Some of these problems have been hammered into the national consciousness—for instance, the fact that two-thirds of the country’s people are overweight or clinically obese. Other issues addressed in the Farm Bill get less air time: One-sixth of the country relies on food stamps. Our agricultural heartland just suffered its most serious drought in decades, and climate conditions continue to grow more erratic. Farm operators over 65 years of age outnumber those under 35 by 7 to 1. Impending water and fuel shortages are already affecting agriculture.

Admittedly, the Farm Bill has gotten creaky. Born in the midst of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, it was intended to protect our food and farming systems from the fickle forces of the weather, price fluctuations, and the global economy. Loans, price supports, and grain reserves helped family farmers receive fair return for their crops. Conservation incentives rewarded farmers for doing things like idling cropland and maintaining hedgerows that prevented erosion and provided natural habitat for birds and wildlife. Nutrition assistance programs tried to ensure that every American got something to eat.

Eighty years later, all of these seemingly straightforward, reasonable goals have become complicated and controversial. Farm Bill subsidy programs lavish landowners with billions of dollars regardless of whether they grow crops. There are essentially no meaningful limits on how much income a farmer can make and still earn subsidies, or on how much assistance a farmer can receive. Most subsidy dollars go to the country’s largest operations in less than 50 congressional districts. Representatives from these districts have gotten the bill passed every five years or so by cutting a deal with congressional champions of food stamps and nutrition assistance, crucial programs that, as of 2008, account for 80 cents of every Farm Bill dollar spent. Conservation is the odd man out: Environmental programs are first on the chopping block whenever budgets need to be tightened. Mounting pressure to cut federal spending has only made passing this legislative behemoth even less popular.

Yet early this summer, the full Senate passed a version of the Farm Bill that seemed to move food policy, however incrementally, in a positive direction. In a series of last-minute amendments, the Senate made some modest cost cuts to food stamps and conservation incentives but also added stricter income and ownership rules to keep the wealthiest farming operations off the dole. It also preserved some programs crucial to boosting regional food production and sustainable agriculture—like grants to help producers market their goods locally, and programs that help get fruits and vegetables straight from farms to school cafeterias. By rejiggering some unpopular crop subsidies into a new-fangled crop insurance safety net, the Senate appeased agribusinesses. By requiring farmers to agree to conservation guidelines to enroll in the insurance program, it pleased conservationists.

The House Agriculture Committee passed its own draft of the Farm Bill in July—but the House version was far less publicly minded than the Senate version. It continued to reward commodity producers—growers of corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, and cotton—who are already earning record income. It quadrupled the Senate’s proposed food stamp budget reduction. It hacked away at important land conservation incentive programs, which can’t even keep up with demand from farmers who are eager to enroll. Riders would have done away with some of the EPA’s regulatory powers and further monopolized the meatpacking industry.

It looked like the Senate’s and the House’s agriculture committees were headed for an ugly clash—but instead, the House completely dropped the ball. House leaders refused to schedule time to debate and vote on the Farm Bill draft that its Agriculture Committee passed in July. After more than two months of stalling, the 2008 Farm Bill expired.

So, what happens now? The sudden expiration of a major piece of legislation sounds like it should have major consequences, but so far the fallout has been mostly limited to the dairy industry. When the Farm Bill expired on Sept. 30, the Milk Income Loss Contract program, which compensates dairy farmers when milk prices drop in relation to feed costs, ended abruptly. Feed grain costs are shooting up, pushed up by drought, the use of corn and soy for biofuel production, and overseas demand. Many operators are selling cattle to survive. With fewer cows producing, the cost of milk and dairy products could soon spike. Some independent dairy farmers most certainly will go under, furthering concentration of ownership in a sector already dominated by mega-dairies. And if Congress does nothing by the end of 2012, things could get really strange. U.S. dairy policy will revert to a 1949 law under which the government hoards milk at astronomical subsidy rates. Milk prices could double almost overnight as a result.

Even with the threat of skyrocketing milk prices, Congress doesn’t appear poised to take any particular action. There are several possible next steps, and the odds are split more or less evenly among them: Congress might negotiate a new Farm Bill during the lame duck session at the end of this year. Alternately, an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill could be passed to help farmers plan for the 2013 planting season and continue conservation and other programs whose funding has been suspended. Or, a version of a Farm Bill could be attached to an upcoming budget bill. Or the bill could stay in limbo indefinitely.

But what should happen now? If Congress were to draft a serious piece of legislation aimed at benefiting farmers, the environment, and consumers (including the poor), what would it look like? The Senate’s version certainly had some of the right ideas, but it didn’t go far enough in at least two important ways.

When deficit hawks looked for big numbers to cut from the agriculture budget earlier this year, food stamps were an easy target. Since 2001, the number of U.S. citizens enrolled in the food stamp program, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, has increased from 17 million to 46 million. The Senate bill proposed a $4 billion decrease in SNAP benefits over 10 years; the House’s committee bill called for a $16 billion reduction; Paul Ryan’s budget included $134 billion in cuts to SNAP benefits.

The truth is that shrinking SNAP would devastate the poor, especially children. Even with recent increases to daily meal stipends, the SNAP program remains woefully inadequate to the task of helping poor Americans put three meals on their tables, let alone eat a healthy diet. A single person on food stamps receives $6.67 per day; a member of a large family gets $5. For better or worse, the Farm Bill is America’s first defense against hunger and an onslaught of nutrition-related diseases, and the SNAP program should be seen as a cornerstone of a national health policy. Funding should remain at current spending levels to support all those who are eligible. Furthermore, the new Farm Bill could improve access to healthy food among people who rely on federal assistance by installing Electronic Benefits Transfer machines in farmers markets, boosting incentives to buy fruits and vegetables, and ramping up healthy snack programs in schools.

The other major issue that Congress left unsettled by abandoning the 2012 Farm Bill is crop insurance, now the biggest form of government support to agriculture. Or, as critics ranging from the Environmental Working Group to the American Enterprise Institute argue, the latest government handout scam. As of the passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, taxpayers fund 60 percent of farmers’ insurance premiums through a subsidy to private companies. They also cover a sizable portion of the insurance industry’s costs to run these programs. (In this drought- and heat-ravaged year of 2012, crop insurance payments alone are expected reach $20 billion to $25 billion, up from approximately $1 billion in 2000.)

Unlike crop subsidies, crop insurance has no strings attached. Formerly, to get a subsidy, a landowner had to comply with basic conservation measures—for instance, they weren’t allowed to plant on highly erodible soils or drain low-lying wetlands. By contrast, government-subsidized crop insurance is actually fueling an expansion of commodity cropping on millions of acres formerly considered marginally productive. It doesn’t matter that this depletes resources and destroys habitats; taxpayers will pick up the tab even if farmers fail to harvest or turn a profit from their crops. Conservation requirements benefit growers and the public alike by preventing soil erosion, filtering water, and providing natural habitat. A serious Farm Bill would not give a single penny to crop insurance programs without requiring conservation compliance from its beneficiaries. Ultimately, all subsidy programs should once again be oriented around environmental stewardship.

There is a silver lining as we await Congress’ next move. Food and farm policy is also made at the state level, often through the initiative process. In 2008, Californians passed Proposition 2, which banned cruel livestock confinement techniques such as tiny pens for laying hens and crates that trap breeding sows for life. Nearly two-thirds of the state’s voters supported more humane standards, and that law had a ripple effect across the nation. This Nov. 6, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, which aims to provide transparency to consumers by requiring labels on foods containing genetically modified ingredients. If the initiative passes despite opposition from some of the world’s most powerful agribusinesses, it could serve as a national proxy vote. With 38 million residents—approximately 12 percent of the U.S. population—and a $2 trillion economy, the California market is so large that if food producers have to change labels there, they’ll do it everywhere. As the expectations of the food movement in liberal pockets of the country rise farther above the realities of national politics, we will increasingly see state battles like California’s shaping national policy.

But that’s no excuse for neglecting federal legislation. Unfortunately, Congress has few incentives to get serious about the bill anytime soon. Recent Farm Bill politics may directly affect only a handful of races this year, mainly in the Midwest. Concerned citizens elsewhere currently have little recourse beyond calling their legislators (as the nonprofit National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has suggested people do in tandem on Nov. 15). Journalist Michael Pollan recently argued that the outcome of Proposition 37 will show whether there is an organized food movement in America. But the food movement has a long way to go before it has any hope of overhauling Farm Bill politics as usual.

Slate’s coverage of food systems is made possible in part by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.