The Year of the Farm Bill

The nation’s Farm Bill has likely never before made it to the Top Ten—or Top Two Hundred—of your focus factors. An enormous and complex piece of legislation, the bill grinds through Congress every half-decade or so. Allocating a staggering amount of money, its effects are profound—driving land-use decisions, dietary choices, and even immigration. This year the Farm Bill may vault into your consciousness as more people than ever try to shape it to align with pressing national interests.

The Farm Bill’s many elements are organized into ten “Titles.” One of the most contentious is Title I, which primarily subsidizes corn, soy, wheat, rice, and cotton. The federal government pays farmers to produce as much of these crops as possible. The effects of this free-market-tweaking policy could fill a book, but the most obvious is that farmers are rewarded for growing subsidized crops as monocrops for export, animal feed, and biofuels, rather than growing non-subsidized diverse market crops that could provide food for their surrounding communities and urban centers. According to the Congressional Research Service, the top 10 percent of farm-subsidy recipients (mostly corporations and absentee landowners) take in more than two-thirds of those payments.

This represents a considerable government giveaway to already-profitable farms. Last time the Farm Bill was passed, a coalition of Senators argued to lower the cap on subsidies from a half million to a quarter of a million dollars, claiming that “millionaire farmers” were reaping all the benefits of the legislation, and that it favored the consolidation of farms by pushing the smallest farms out of business and undermining the economic development of small farming communities.

The overproduction of these commodities has significant consequences. Because the prices of these crops are kept artificially low by government handouts, an enormous industry has sprung up around their byproducts—the oils, flours, starches, sugars, and food additives ubiquitous in junk food and the cheap feed that cattle eat at feedlots. In effect, the federal government is making bad food cheap. According to Michael Pollan, the real price of fruits and vegetables increased by 40 percent between 1985 and 2000. In the same period, the price of soft drinks (which primarily consist of high fructose corn syrup) went down by 23 percent. Imagine—your tax dollars are paying for candied soda pop. The subsidies greatly impact what low-income individuals can afford to eat.

Ironically, Title IV manages the Food Stamp program, also providing nutrition outreach to low-income households, to encourage food stamp eligible citizens to consume more fresh fruits and vegetables—the very crops that the government doesn’t subsidize. In the past, urban area legislators have fixed their sights on the food stamp component and ignored most of the other Titles, including rural land-use issues.

This year, several urban legislators are taking the Food Stamp Challenge—that is, trying to eat for a week on $21, the typical allotment of a food stamp recipient. Early in June, Representative Barbara Lee could be found scouring the aisles of Berkeley’s Grocery Outlet, trying to spend her last $6 wisely. Unlike most food stampers, Lee was trailed by the press during her hunt through the store. Her message: it is impossible for people to eat a healthy diet on food stamp benefits, and multiple aspects of the Farm Bill must be addressed for this to change. The foods affordable to low-income families are the same that are creating a public health crisis of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related disease—and the same foods kept artificially cheap by government subsidies.

Conservation and the protection of water, air, wildlife habitat, and farmland is the concern of Title II, a category whose funding is chopped away every year by Bush’s budget. One of II’s provisions is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which rewards livestock and crop producers for making conservation and environmental improvements. Some of these improvements, however, you wouldn’t wish on your best friend—and certainly not your next door neighbor’s land.

Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists submitted an excellent brief to the House Committee on Agriculture, analyzing perverse incentives in Title II and recommending remedies. The organization is particularly critical of the EQIP provisions that actually underwrite and promote the expansion of large concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are bona-fide disasters from the standpoint of waste treatment, profligate use of antibiotics, and E. coli contamination.

Title III of the Farm Bill contains programs designed to develop and expand commercial outlets for US commodities. Unfortunately, the cheapness of the commodities subsidized by Title I gives our producers an unfair advantage over our so-called “free trade” agreement partners. Mexican corn growers, for example, cannot compete with the subsidized US corn that is dumped into their country, driving Mexican farmers out of business and indirectly creating economic refugees who may immigrate to urban centers in the US and elsewhere.

Title VII funds agricultural research and extension programs, including grants for food biosecurity and developing biotechnology crops for poor countries. In the last Farm Bill, a tiny wedge of funds was earmarked to support research and extension activities for organic agriculture. Needless to say, in Title VII and others, the federal government gives large-scale industrial agriculture and its methods a heavily weighted economic advantage over organic and small-scale family farms.

The behemoth Farm Bill of 2002 was launched with little fanfare. In the immediate wake of 9/11, Congress had little appetite for heated or prolonged debate about domestic issues, and we were about to invade Afghanistan. In the years since, skyrocketing obesity and Type II diabetes rates, E. coli scares, and books and films like Fast Food Nation, SuperSize Me, and the Omnivore’s Dilemma have alerted the public that all is not right with our food and farming systems. Finally, scrutiny is turning to the role the federal government plays in this mess.

The Farm Bill can be a powerful vehicle, capable of driving entrepreneurship and research, protecting species and restoring habitat, supporting public health, and strengthening rural communities and regional food systems. With enough public input, this year’s bill might just fulfill its promise.

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