Our nation’s food and farm policy is on the wrong track – outdated agriculture policies encourage accelerated farm consolidation, freeze out new farmers, deplete natural resources, and limit healthy food access.
Over the last two decade, however, federal farm policy has started building a parallel track of policies to foster a long overdue transformation of the US food system.
Through the “farm bill” – the food and farm legislation that is reassessed every five years or so by Congress – new programs and policies have been created to assist new and beginning farmers, minority farmers, fruit and vegetable farmers, and organic farmers. Farm bills from the 1990s also introduced important new wetland and grassland restoration programs and in the last decade added stewardship payments to reward farming in concert with the environment. The two most recent farm bills have also included new funding for farm-based renewable energy production and on-farm energy conservation, rural micro-enterprise development and job creation, and rebuilding a local and regional food economy.
Even taken together, these important reform efforts are still a fairly small fraction of total farm bill spending, but they have an outsize impact – and they are helping to create the foundation for a more a more sustainable and equitable farm and food system in America.
Good news: these innovative programs were all funded as part of the last farm bill that ran from 2008 to 2012.
More good news: they also receive renewed, and in some cases increased, funding in one or both of the Senate and House farm bills currently being considered in Congress.
Very bad news: when the current farm bill had to be extended in January to give Congress more time to complete it, nearly all of these innovative programs were denied funding in the farm bill extension that was negotiated between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and passed by Congress on January 1 of this year.
Clearly, the White House and Congress felt that some issues were not important enough to receive continued support, and they were left in the lurch for 2013, dormant for now and facing an uncertain future. Just as revolting, the New Year’s deal left far more expensive commodity subsidies that are given out regardless of need fully intact despite the fact that both the pending House and Senate farm bills would eliminate them. In short, it was an awful farm bill extension.
And here’s the kicker: It could happen all over again. The current farm bill extension expires on Monday, and there are very few signs that Congress will come to an agreement on a new five-year farm bill any time soon. The process has proven to be as tortuous and dysfunctional as just about every other important issue before Congress these days.
We can’t afford to repeat last year’s train wreck.
Without a new farm bill — or at the very least a modified, reform-oriented extension of the current farm bill — the innovative programs and policies that invest in the future of healthy farms, food, and people are completely derailed. Put bluntly, this represents hundreds of millions of disinvestment in a better food and farm future that we may never get back.
So, where do things stand right now in Congress? Here is the in a nutshell version:
The Senate has passed a bipartisan farm bill. The House, however, first voted down its comprehensive but far less progressive farm bill, and then separately passed a partisan ‘farm-only’ farm bill followed by an even more partisan ‘nutrition-only’ farm bill. The nutrition bill approved last week includes huge cuts to the SNAP (food stamp) program that would force nearly 4 million Americans out of the program and reduce benefit levels for another nearly million people.
It is as yet unclear when and how the House and Senate will try to reconcile the vast differences between their respective bills. What is clear, though, is that between the two bills, all the raw materials are present and available for a House-Senate conference committee to craft a final bill that does a reasonably good job of investing in the future of healthy farms, food and people, begins the process of reforms farm subsidies, and incorporates only modest changes to SNAP.
Congress should seize the opportunity to get our food and farm policy back on track. Congress should pass a new five-year farm bill that includes robust funding for the programs that keep our families fed and healthy, build local economies, protect and restore natural resources, and spur the next generation of farmers.
If, however, the effort to reconcile the bills does not begin or if a decent, reform-oriented bill is not possible to achieve, then it is incumbent upon Congress to approve a multiyear, reform-oriented farm bill extension. That bill, should it become necessary, must include an extension of funding for the newer, more innovative programs. It must save money by ending direct commodity subsidies that flow out to commodity producers irrespective of farm income or commodity prices. And it must also begin the process of reforming commodity insurance subsidies to support family farms, healthy food, and conservation. Anything less should be rejected by Congress or, if necessary, vetoed by the President.
For the next several weeks, we’ll be highlighting how very much is at stake this fall if Congress can’t put our nation’s farm and food policy on the right track to a sustainable future for our nation’s food, families, and farmers.
You can find our What’s at Stake in the Farm Bill series here: