Passed every five years, the Farm Bill is a piece of legislation that addresses farming and a range of other food issues. This year the bill is up for reauthorization. The current version from 2008, entitled the “Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008,” is set to expire in September, so Congress is in the process of working out an updated one, entitled the “Agricultural Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012″
The food and nutrition programs take up the overwhelming majority of the bill’s budget; for example, SNAP (Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly Food Stamps) accounted for more than 2/3 of spending for the 2008 bill. The bill is also very important in other areas such as farm policy, food aid, rural development, and conservation. In essence, the Farm Bill shapes the food system in the US and influences food systems throughout the world.
This past Thursday, under the guidance of the Chair, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D, Michegan), the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry submitted a 1,000-page draft of the bill to the Senate. This draft will undergo many changes before going into effect, as it will need to pass through the democrat-controlled Senate and the republican-controlled house. Given both the recent partisan antagonism over the budget and the fact that this a big election year, the Farm Bill will definitely be politicized.
Politicians should not use this bill merely to promote their own political careers, either by pandering to a certain group of voters or to campaign contributors (ahem, big agribusiness). The farm subsidies contained in the bill have long been a contentious issue. The bill as it exists now claims to cut spending by some $23B, in large part by eliminating direct payments based on acreage.
Will the new bill end support for big agribusiness? Hardly, as the direct payments will be replaced with a $3.5B revenue-insurance scheme. Other down-sides of the bill are that land conservation policies tied to direct payments will disappear and some government-supported food and nutrition programs will be cut. In some other respects, the bill makes steps in the right direction — for example by supporting organic farming, new/young/small-scale farmers, farmers markets, programs to promote fruit and vegetable production, expansions of SNAP, new conservation policies, and an end to Title I payments to farmers or entities with an adjusted gross income of $750,00 or more. While based on the Senate committee’s summary (see below) the bill does not seem to be the agribusiness-serving piece of legislation that it has gained a reputation for in the past, it certainly is not perfect.
But in the end, to clearly pass judgement on the bill, it will be necessary to examine the final break-down of the funding for each program, as a laundry list of even the most progressive policies means quite little if there is a lack of substantial funding. Like the current draft, the final bill will be so lengthy, full of disparate provisions, and hidden in abstruse language that it will be difficult to comprehend clearly. Because it is an omnibus bill that bundles together such a wide range of provisions, it will invariably have some strong and weak points.
For more information about the 2012 Farm Bill see: A summary of the current draft