What’s at Stake with the Farm Bill in Limbo?


There’s a reason why the Farm Bill is considered one of the most controversial pieces of legislation — it sets all of the rules for our entire food system.

Every five years, a new version makes its way from Congress to farms, grocery stores and kitchen cabinets. It establishes what farmers grow, how land is maintained, and sets prices for crop subsidies. The current bill, passed in 2008, officially expired on September 30th 2012, so it’s time to start thinking about what our food system will look like for the next five years.

Beginning in 1973, farm bills have included on everything from commodity programs, trade, rural development, farm credit, agriculture subsidies, conservation, agricultural research, food and nutrition programs and even food marketing. There are so many moving parts, and a great deal hinges on how these parts interoperate. The four main components of the $288 billion 2008 bill were nutrition, crop insurance, commodities and conservation. Nutrition comprises the largest portion of spending ($47.2 billion) and includes school lunch programs in addition to food stamps. Food stamps have long been a point of controversy, particularly around the type of food products that should be permissible under Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  Many see changes in SNAP as priority for the next bill. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) writes:

Through improvements to SNAP and programs that encourage rural development and entrepreneurship, we can increase the number of people with access to nutrition education and improve access to fresh and locally grown food. Such investments are the right thing to do from an ethical and environmental standpoint, and could save countless taxpayer dollars in the future by combating obesity and Type II diabetes, while putting money in the pockets of family farmer

Because of its recent expiration, the state of the Farm Bill is now in limbo. There won’t be a vote in the House on a new farm bill until after the upcoming election, despite the fact that “rural America is still recovering from a bad drought [and] farmers are in need of certainty for next year,” as the Washington Post reports.

What’s at stake?

We can expect a number of programs to suffer without a steady flow of funds, such as
programs that help cover the cost of becoming certified USDA organic, training opportunities and technical assistance for beginning and young farmers, and startup funds for community-supported agriculture programs.

We can also expect the price of food to fluctuate. Because the Farm bill regulates the price of milk, we could end up paying $6 a gallon ! Hundreds of dairy farmers and livestock producers, who have been hid the hardest by recent droughts, are urging Congress to renew the bill by the end of the year. Droughts have pushed up the price of hay and feed, forcing many dairy farmers to file for bankruptcy. Jackie Klippenstein, vice president of industry and legislative affairs for Dairy Farmers of America says this bill needs to be a priority: “Congress has to got to do something in November. The farm bill provided a measure of hope. The fact that Congress went home without addressing it has really deflated a lot of folks out there who are struggling.”

Of course, the Farm Bill can’t prevent the disastrous effects of a drought, but it can provide basic protections for both farmers and consumers. Steffen Schmidt, a politics professor at Iowa State University in Ames, says the Democrats have done a poor job of explaining that, apart from farm subsidies, the bill includes food stamps, school lunches and rural development money:”A big failure of the Democrats is they have not explained the farm bill has broader economic and social implications,” Schmidt said.

Why hasn’t it passed?

Gridlock in Washington of course. The House Agriculture Committee presented a bill that did not earn the support of the full House. Fiscal conservatives do not want to expand farm welfare at a time of record farm income and progressive house members do not want a bill that cuts hunger and environmental programs and guts basic consumer protections. We need Congress to pass a new farm bill as soon as possible, but it needs to be a good one considering its wide-reaching implications. 

About Sona Makker

Sona is a first-year law student studying technology law at Santa Clara University. She’s an advocate for online privacy, digital rights, and public access to the public domain. If she’s not arguing with her siblings over whether This American Life is better than Radiolab, you’ll probably find her whipping up vegetarian dishes, or attempting to do a headstand in yoga class.
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