Overhauling the Farm Bill: Political Wedge Issues Slowing Reform

Government deficits, energy, health care: Any one of these issues could lead to a policy fight that keeps much-needed reform off the table.

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Editor's Note: The Farm Bill is the Olympics of U.S. food and agriculture policy. Every five years or so this important legislation comes up for renewal and the games begin. The federal government awards medals in the form of billion-dollar budgets that will determine what foods we eat and how we grow them. The current Farm Bill is set to expire on September 30, 2012, and the debate over who will dominate the food system is well underway. Farm Bill 101 is a three-part series adapted from the recent update of Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill and is designed to unravel what is at stake in this vital legislation.

It would be naïve to imagine that the Farm Bill will be radically overhauled in 2012, or during any single negotiation cycle. Considering everything at stake -- our health, our food, our environment -- one might think that the forces opposing corporate industrial food and farming (conservationists, family farm advocates, anti-hunger groups) could constitute a united front for change. But more often than not, reform groups have won important concessions for their own narrow interests, which only makes an unsatisfactory system slightly less bad.

Reformers must create integrated solutions to address deep systemic problems such as the loss of diversity in the farming system or overreliance on fossil fuels to produce food.

Granted, reformers are swimming against a strong tide. The agribusiness and food industry lobbies are unconstrained, farm states wield massive power, and entitlement programs are too entrenched. One resource economist described Farm Bill negotiations as a "fully rigged" game.

But the Farm Bill has undergone true seismic changes three times in the last 80 years, and it could do so again. In 1961, the food stamp program was reinstated in the early days of the Kennedy Administration. Commodity growers and an emerging Congressional anti-hunger caucus eventually made common cause, tying agricultural output to a food safety net for the poor. In the mid-1980s, environmental conservation resurfaced as a Farm Bill priority, and nature and wildlife advocates successfully lobbied for land stewardship incentives that went beyond simple erosion control. In the 1980s and 1990s, a wave of deregulation reforms dismantled a long-standing federally run supply management system. In its place we got the subsidy supports so favorable to corporate agribusinesses and industrial food processors that we have today.

There are a host of current issues that might truly rattle the upcoming round of Farm Bill negotiations, including:

  • The need to significantly reduce the national debt burden.
  • Mounting health care costs due to adult and childhood obesity.
  • Rising costs and eventual limited availability of fossil fuels.
  • Diminishing sources of fresh water.
  • A major push for income limitations on farm program eligibility and for caps on total subsidies per recipient.
  • Extreme weather events due to climate chaos.
  • Emerging local food movements.

As an old saying goes, culture shifts before politics do. Farm Bill policies emerge slowly and idiosyncratically, often taking years and multiple Farm Bill cycles for even a single issue or new program to take root.

Once they do take root, they are near impossible to pull out. Narrow interests become pilot programs and, later, programs with mandatory budgets. Over time they demand more and more money, sometimes raiding the till from other programs. Revoking them becomes difficult, even long after they've stopped being relevant, appropriate, or effective.

Sometimes agribusiness simply co-opts a program, keeping the language of public benefit but funneling money to corporate agribusinesses and megafarms. The most recent movement underfoot entails replacing subsidy programs with federally funded crop insurance policies that would guarantee income based on historic crop prices. Another egregious example is how the Environment Quality Incentives Program has been hijacked by confinement animal factory feedlots to pay for them to comply with Clean Water Act and other regulations. Farm Bill conservation dollars -- up to $300,000 per owner -- are being diverted to build and fortify manure lagoons, even as landowners eligible to protect wetlands, conserve invaluable habitat for wildlife, and provide other urgent environmental services are turned away due to a lack of funding.

In short, Farm Bill reformers have to do a strong push-pull to get new ideas on the agenda and get bad programs off the bill. If a critical mass coalesced in one area, a food and farm policy earthquake could start along any one of multiple rumbling fault lines this year.

Government Deficits: With the implications of trillion-dollar deficits weighing on the nation, conservatives and liberals alike are looking at ways to trim fat. The United States Department of Agriculture's food and farm programs, while just a small percentage of total government spending, are always a target of discontent about government pork. Decades of taxpayer giveaways to millionaire landowners have also made farm programs enormously unpopular. Yet the need for investments in conservation, research, regional food production, nutrition, renewable energy, and other priority areas makes supporting food and agriculture more important than ever. It might be time to look to other agencies that also have a stake in a healthy food system -- such as public health or defense or energy -- to contribute a fair share.

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Daniel Imhoff is a researcher, author, and independent publisher focused on farming, the environment, and design. He is the president and co-founder of Watershed Media, a non-profit publishing house based in California.

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