Overhauling the Farm Bill: Political Wedge Issues Slowing Reform

More

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

illustrart/Shutterstock

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.

foodfight2012_lrg.jpg Energy: With rapidly fluctuating oil markets and the costs of food production on the rise, energy issues will dominate Farm Bill debates well into the future. The corn-based ethanol industry has enjoyed enormous growth thanks to 20 years of generous tax incentives, federal mandates, and other subsidies -- now totaling as much as $6 billion per year. This has been more of a pro-corn policy than a responsible energy policy. In 2011, 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop was used for ethanol. Recent analyses reveal, however, that when you tally the need to fertilize, irrigate, harvest, and process corn, at least two-thirds of a gallon of oil are needed to produce one gallon of ethanol. Finally the tide is turning against corn-based ethanol. Energy efficiency measures need to take the place of growing crops to replace liquid fuels. Efforts to reduce energy-intensive and polluting nitrogen fertilizer must become national priorities.

Health Care: Perhaps the most influential lobbying force poised to weigh in on the 2012 Farm Bill discussions is the health care community. With the annual medical costs of the obesity crisis now at $150 billion (and predicted to reach $350 billion by 2018), the health care community is a sleeping giant about to awaken and throw significant influence and resources behind food and farm policies. Will the health care community demand an agricultural policy that pushes healthier diets? Will it join forces with other movements calling for regional food production, non-toxic farming methods, grass-fed livestock, and closer links between farmers and consumers?

Religious Communities: The faith-based community is yet another constituency whose influence could be significant. Issues of fair trade, hunger, the concentration of land ownership, conditions of animal confinement, global hunger, and climate change have surfaced as moral concerns. Broader participation among congregants and faith-based organizations could greatly expand citizen input into food and farm politics, particularly outside traditional agricultural regions.

Climate Change: Scientists have warned for more than a decade that the planet's climate is changing. These changes appear to be having a direct bearing on farming: heavy storms, searing drought, and unpredictable weather patterns are becoming the norms of modern agriculture. At the same time, agriculture contributes an estimated eight percent of America's greenhouse gas emissions. Worldwide, the food system's contributions are much higher. Methane emissions from concentrated livestock production, nitrous oxide from fertilizer use, and carbon dioxide from livestock and equipment all contribute to a global food system that is literally heating up the planet. The future requires a long-term transition toward production that uses less energy, raises fewer grain-fed animals, offers resilience against flooding and drought, and sequesters carbon.

Local Food Systems: A movement has been long afoot to increase the appreciation of and access to locally produced foods. Farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture, Farm 2 School, Farm 2 Institution, and many other innovative developments are connecting local farmers and consumers now more than ever. Health providers are writing vegetable prescriptions for overweight patients, farmers market vendors are accepting SNAP electronic benefits (the successor to food stamps), consumers are seeking out regional produce. Local food production is being expanded to increase regional food security, create jobs, and give school children an understanding of where their food comes from. City governments and regional food councils are even weighing in with their own platforms and principles that they hope can shape future Farm Bill funding priorities.

The more citizens learn what is at stake, and to an even greater extent, have a clear picture of the kind of agriculture and food system they want their elected officials to support, the better the chances for reform. But reformers must also learn to build bridges that lead to integrated solutions that address deep systemic problems such as the loss of diversity in the farming system or overreliance on fossil fuels to produce food. Only by creating a fully healthy food and farming system -- economically, ecologically, and socially -- will citizens also gain full health.

TEMPLATEReadMoreBookExcerpts.jpgExcerpted from Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill (Watershed Media)

Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

An artist's campaign to end sexual harassment on the streets of NYC.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In