- What is the Farm Bill? Simply put, the Farm Bill is a piece of legislation that determines which foods will be plentiful and inexpensive. It gets reworked about every 4-7 years, the last one being passed in 2008. We were due for a new Farm Bill in 2012, but as people following the issue already know, the 2008 bill was left to expire.
- Where does Farm Bill money go? Contrary to popular belief, most of the Farm Bill money (73%) goes to nutrition programs, not subsidies for commodity crops (which only gets 14%). Additionally, 7% goes to crop insurance, 6% goes to conservation programs, while less than 1% supports exports and renewable energy investments and research.
- How does the Farm Bill help Americans? Most Farm Bill money goes to nutrition programs, the most notable program being SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). With more Americans than ever before (about 45 million, half of which are children) relying on nutrition assistance programs, any spending cut to this area would be devastating, causing hunger and public health problems across the country. At only about $1.50 per meal, SNAP benefits are meager enough already.
- Does the Farm Bill help family farmers? While many family farmer do rely on subsidies to stay afloat, 60% of farmers don’t get subsidies. Additionally, the richest 10% of subsidy recipients get almost 75% of the payments. So while many family farmers do rely on these payments, loopholes that allow large agribusinesses to collect the majority of the payments need to be closed.
- Who gets subsidies? Almost 70% of commodity subsidies go to just 5 crops: corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, and cotton. Fruits, vegetables, and nuts are considered “specialty crops” and are largely ignored by Farm Bill policies. Commodity subsidies keep the building blocks of junk food (high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil) cheap, which in turn, keeps junk food cheap.
- What’s the deal with biofuels? Currently, 40% of our corn crop is being diverted away from food for human consumption to be used for biofuels (corn ethanol). Biofuels are meant to displace oil, so this could be good, right? Wrong. Currently, ethanol output is displacing only 8% of gasoline. The same amount of gas could be displaced if we increased fleet wide fuel economy by just 1.1 MPG across the board! And if that weren’t enough, it takes at least 2/3 gallon of oil (gasoline) to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. That is ridiculous!
- Does the Farm Bill align with U.S. Dietary Guidelines? If Americans increased their fruit and vegetable consumption to meet the USDA dietary recommendations, the US would need an additional 13 million acres of these crops! That’s more than 3 times what we currently devote to fruit and vegetable production. Without research devoted to more efficient produce farming, or economic incentives such as subsidies, there is little motivation for farmers to grow fruits and vegetables. It simply isn’t profitable.
- Does the Farm Bill promote sustainable land use? Some of the biggest conservation programs for land and wildlife are actually funded through the Farm Bill, but conservation programs get only a small percentage of the budget. The financial risks of farming are so high, that farmers plant “fencerow to fencerow” regardless of what is needed, because it is the only way for them to stay afloat. More money should be put into conservation policies to help reward farmers that are good stewards of the land. Right now there is no incentive for them to farm sustainably, except for the Conservation Stewardship Program, which is severely underfunded (3/4 applications get rejected due to lack of funds).
- What issues should an ideal Farm Bill address? An ideal Farm Bill should better align crop subsidies with nutrition guidelines, and make all farmers meet certain conservation guidelines before being eligible to receive support. This means no more money for large CAFOs or soil degrading mono-croppers. An ideal Farm Bill should also incentivize sustainable methods such as pasture based agriculture and crop rotation, as well as devote more research to organics and produce production.
- What’s next for the Farm Bill? The January fiscal cliff bill included a 9 month extension of the 2008 Farm Bill. This bill extends direct payments to farmers (unless a new Farm Bill is passed before October), protects against a spike in milk prices (the “dairy cliff”), and makes no major changes to SNAP. Unfortunately, the extension didn’t extend funding for organics, clean water initiatives, beginning farmer programs, or disaster assistance. However, the Farm Bill is facing budget cuts across the board in the aftermath of the sequestration. It is still unclear how the money will get allocated. Things are changing quickly, so now is the time to let your voice be heard.
Statistics mentioned above are sourced from Food Fight 2012: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill, the video displayed below, as well as this article.
For those of you that would like to learn more:
- To learn more about what the Farm Bill is and what programs it supports (or doesn’t), I highly recommend this 14 minute TEDxTalk from Ken Cook (President and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group) called “Turning the Farm Bill into a Food Bill”.
- For a shorter video introduction, check out this 4 minute video slideshow from Food Fight 2012. While not as informative as the TEDxTalk, it is still a good place to start.
- As far as reading materials go, I cannot recommend this book enough. In Food Fight 2012: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill, author Daniel Imhoff breaks down the complexities of the bill in an easy to understand manner. The book is filled with colorful graphics and charts to help illustrate the various aspects of the bill. And best of all, Imhoff highlights the loopholes and problems of the Farm Bill, and offers sensible solutions and policy changes to improve it. This book is indispensable to anyone looking to learn more about the Farm Bill and make a difference in U.S. Food Policy.
- For more information on how you can get involved in improving the next Farm Bill, see this page. Because the Farm Bill extensions expire in October, NOW is the time to get involved!
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