The Farm Bill

Massive Law Drives America's Farm System – But to Where?

  Feature 2 - The Farm Bill
By Sandy Graham

In the coming months, Congress must grapple with one of its biggest legislative challenges. It's not directly jobs-related or tied head-on to controversial social issues, but it still has a massive impact on the economy and the poor.

Meet the Farm Bill.

"The Farm Bill, simply put, is the biggest single piece of legislation that affects what we as a country grow and therefore what we eat," says David Wallinga, MD, MPA, a senior advisor for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a Minneapolis-based organization that works for fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems. "Even people who aren't involved in agriculture, which is most of us – we all have reasons to be invested in the Farm Bill."

Although the first Farm Bill was passed in 1933 to support farmers financially and help feed the hungry during the Great Depression, its recent incarnations do that and more. Rural development, the U.S. Forest Service, international food assistance, biosecurity, biotechnology research and rural alternate energy systems all are part of the Farm Bill. Nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) account for 75 percent of Farm Bill spending.

"The most misunderstood aspect of the Farm Bill is that people think the majority of the money goes to subsidize producers – either to grow commodities [people] think aren't as healthy as they could be or to not farm," says Lee Swenson, executive vice president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, which represents family farmers and ranchers in New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado. "We put our blinders on and don't look at the big picture."

For Colorado, the big picture includes 400,000 residents receiving SNAP benefits, funding to help build and remodel rural hospitals, efforts to cut the amount of silt eroded into streams and rivers, and programs to enhance wildlife habitat and hunting.

Still, the bill's original intents – commodities support and food assistance – get the bulk of the attention and criticism. Organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists argue that the legislation points farmers and ranchers to unnecessary, environmentally damaging industrial processes while failing to do as much as it could to support sustainable agriculture and encourage organic and local crop production.

Wallinga's institute charges that the bill pushes overproduction of cheap corn and grains that end up in our diets as added sugars and fats, contributing to obesity and its host of related diseases. It also points to the lack of Farm Bill incentives to grow healthy crops, such as fruits and vegetables. With only three states – California, Texas and Florida – producing the bulk of the country's produce now, encouraging farmers elsewhere to diversify into raising produce also makes the agricultural economy more resistant to natural disaster.

The institute hopes to see the newest Farm Bill encourage production of locally grown produce and access to healthy foods for low-income people receiving food assistance.

"The Farm Bill [now] doesn't get us anywhere toward a food system that meets the demands of people who want to be healthy," Wallinga says. "It doesn't incentivize people to grow fruits and vegetables – there's no credit financing, no collection of data that would allow them to get loans from banks, no offer of insurance. In fact, a farmer already growing corn or soybeans who changes to fruits and vegetables would be ineligible for the benefits he gets now. From a health perspective, that's crazy."

The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, which historically has supported organic farming, local produce, the use of food assistance benefits at farmers markets and other progressive elements of the Farm Bill, is not as harsh a critic.

"Using the argument that traditional agriculture is unhealthy is inappropriate," Swenson says. "There's room for change and cases of abuse, but it is not a blanket situation. The debate should be how do we make soda healthy – not to blame the Farm Bill for supporting corn." (Corn is used to produce fructose, which sweetens soda, but also is a popular animal feed.)

Still, the Farmers Union, with 24,000 members in the three states, is concerned about funding for the next Farm Bill in light of the country's tough economic climate and fervor for budget cutting. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Farm Bill funding will account only for roughly 2 percent of the federal budget between 2010 and 2020 – that adds up, however, to about $1.1 trillion during that decade – a prime target as Congress looks to offset spending locked up for Medicare and other entitlement programs.

"We have more concerns than visions for the Farm Bill at this time," Swenson says. "I've been involved in Farm Bill legislation for 40 years and I've never seen partisan politics come into every issue as they have today." The Farmers Union is most concerned that Congress will separate nutrition programs (with widespread support from both rural and urban lawmakers) from other titles of the farm program including agricultural support programs (which have less widespread support). Support programs provide the "farm safety net" aspects of the bill, which include farm commodity support, crop insurance and supplemental disaster insurance.

Swenson also fears that rural development programs, so important to Colorado, will be consolidated, and that food assistance funding will be cut or rules changed to make fewer people eligible.

"We are strongly supportive of maintaining the nutrition title of the Farm Bill and seeing that it is adequately funded," he says. It not only provides a market for union members' products, it's the right thing to do. The Farmers Union's Cooperative Development Center is working with Colorado farmers markets to install electronic machines that will debit SNAP benefit cards for purchases.

Wallinga is encouraged by the increased public awareness he has seen of sustainable, less environmentally damaging farming practices and a healthier food system. "That's the prerequisite for changing public policy," he says. But it's no easy task with food issues intersecting with health, transportation, energy, community planning and other areas.

"That's the bad news," he says. "But there really is no alternative. We know fuel costs are going up. We know the climate is going to change. We either have to be mindful of that and try to have options on the table, or stick our heads in the sand."