Beware the Back-Door Farm Bill

Surprise! The bill to avert the fiscal cliff might get a rider. It's a big one -- and it might hurt American farmers.

Randall Hill/Reuters

As Washington scrambles to avert fiscal freefall, Americans should be alert to what might get rolled into this hurry-up-and-pass-something budget. The $100 billion-a-year Farm Bill, which never got a House vote, could easily end up piggy-backed into a deficit-reduction deal. That could, absent any debate, silently degrade state's rights, weaken environmental and food-safety protections, and reverse anti-monopoly reforms.

The Farm Bill costs about a trillion dollars over 10 years -- and that makes it a big fat target for cost cutters. Its sizable crop subsidies and crop-insurance supports also grease the financial wheels of the industrial food system. So the powerful farm lobby has a vested interest in a renewed Farm Bill before next year's planting season.

Both President Obama's and Paul Ryan's budgets specifically call for $33 billion in cuts to agriculture subsidies. The House and Senate Agriculture Committees viewed farm programs through a different lens: Both remained fairly friendly to agribusiness -- they each cut less than half of what the president asked for -- but hacked away conservation and nutrition assistance programs. (The Senate bill diverges from the House plan by cutting $12 billion less from the food stamp program, imposing fundamental reforms to crop insurance, and placing modest income caps on crop subsidies). Undeniably, real money can be saved if the Farm Bill is reduced. But which programs should pay?

Congress should have sorted this out before September, when the last five-year Farm Bill expired. It didn't. Instead, the Senate debated and passed a version, but the House failed to bring its agriculture committee's draft to the floor for debate or vote.

There's little to like about the House committee's draft. It would continue to lavish billions on the country's largest commodity agriculture producers. Land and habitat conservation would be weakened rather than strengthened. It would slash $16 billion from the food-stamp budget, the main reason this draft bill didn't see the light of day: many representatives, especially Democrats, opposed such draconian reductions in a slow economy. Others, including Ryan, wanted to see the food-stamp program cut by an astounding $125 billion.

Equally worrisome, though, are Farm Bill provisions that don't necessarily add to or take away from the bottom line. Attached to the House Agriculture Committee's draft bill, for example, are a handful of riders that should sound alarm bells for anyone who cares about healthy food. A series of amendments were approved by the committee and included in its bill to strengthen the already enormous powers that the industrial agriculture complex wields over the food system. Here are a few that need to be stricken before a new Farm Bill is passed or the now-expired 2008 bill is extended.

  • Restrictions on states' rights to regulate food and agriculture. One provision would curtail a state's power to restrict the import of an agricultural item from another state based on its means of production. This is a direct assault on Proposition 2, the animal-welfare initiative California voters passed in 2008. Cruel confinement techniques, such as cages that cram laying hens and gestation pens that trap pregnant sows for life, will soon be banned, and out-of-state suppliers to California must abide by these changes. If passed, this rider could have impacts on a variety of other state-regulated products, such as raw milk and farm-raised fish.
  • Fast-tracked genetically engineered (GMO) crop approval. This provision would narrow the scope of environmental assessments necessary for GMO crop approval. It would also limit the amount of time that USDA has to review such applications. This is particularly troubling now. Herbicide-resistant "super weeds" affect up to 80 million acres of the nation's farmland, greatly reducing the effectiveness of GMO crops. And agribusiness giants are scrambling to release a new generation of GMO crops engineered to be resistant to more toxic pesticides such as 2-4-D and Dicamba.
  • Weakened pesticide regulation. Another provision would undermine the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate pesticide pollution under the Clean Water Act and also prohibit EPA from modifying pesticide registrations based on the scientific assessments of the National Marine Fisheries Services or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
  • Reversing anti-monopoly reforms. This amendment would strike important reforms to livestock and poultry contract regulations that were approved as part of the 2008 Farm Bill. USDA has already finalized some of those reforms to reign in the monopolistic behavior of the large meatpackers, whose practices severely limit the ability of independent farmers and ranchers to earn fair prices for their livestock and poultry. Repealing these USDA regulations would deal a critical blow to family farmers.

These aren't the kind of legislative or regulatory changes that should happen by default or accident in the rush to strike a budget compromise. Congress should, instead, pass an extension of the current Farm Bill, including the restoration of funds during the interim extension year for important programs that support conservation, rural development, beginning farmers and ranchers, and organic research. Congress should also agree now to include the $30 billion cuts in excessive payments to large agribusinesses that the Obama and Ryan budgets already agree on. And then it should come back and finish the job next year of writing a Farm Bill that protects the hungry, provides real incentives for farming practices that reduce chemical use and promote conservation, and reins in subsidy payouts to the country's largest and richest agribusinesses. What it shouldn't do is let undebated rules become part of a last-minute grand bargain.