Farm Bill matters

One of the ‘most significant forces affecting food, farming, and land use’ in the country

March 28, 2007

Every five years, Congress revisits and passes a massive but little-understood piece of legislation known as the Farm Bill. This year will be one of those years, and if things play out the way they’re headed, this could become the most scrutinized food-and-farm-policy debate in recent history.

Originally conceived as an emergency bailout for millions of farmers and unemployed during the dark times of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, the Farm Bill has snowballed into one of the most — if not the most — significant forces affecting food, farming, and land use in the United States.

In a country consecrated to private-property rights and free-market ideals, it might seem hard to fathom that a single piece of legislation could wield such far-reaching influence. But to a large extent, the Farm Bill determines what sort of foods we Americans eat (and how they taste and how much they cost), which crops are grown under what conditions, and, ultimately, whether we’re properly nourished or not.

Why the Farm Bill matters

If you pay taxes, care about the nutritional value of school lunches, or worry about biodiversity or the loss of farmland and open space, you have a personal stake in the tens of billions of dollars committed annually to agriculture and food policies.

If you’re concerned about escalating federal budget deficits, the fate of family farmers, a food system dominated by corporations and commodities, conditions of immigrant farm workers, the state of the country’s woodlands, or the marginalization of locally raised organic food and grass-fed meat and dairy products, you should pay attention to the Farm Bill.

Dozens of other reasons the Farm Bill is critical to our land, our bodies, and our children’s future include:

  • The twilight of the cheap-oil age and the onset of unpredictable climatic conditions;
  • Looming water shortages and crashing fish populations;
  • Broken rural economies;
  • Euphoria over corn and soybean expansion for biofuels;
  • Escalating medical and economic costs of child and adult obesity;
  • Record payouts to corporate farms that aren’t even losing money;
  • Over 35 million Americans, half of them children, who don’t get enough to eat.
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“The farm policies we design now will likely determine whether we will continue to have a sustainable food system in the future,” writes longtime North Dakota organic farmer and food activist Fred Kirschenmann, in the introduction to my book Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to a Food and Farm Bill.

Although the economic challenges of modern agriculture may seem abstract to many urban and suburban residents, he argues, “An enlightened food and farm policy is of considerable consequence to every citizen on the planet.”

We all do have to eat, after all.

What is the Farm Bill?

The Farm Bill is essentially a $90 billion tax bill for food, feed, fiber, and, more recently, fuel. Each bill receives a formal name, such as the Food and Agriculture Act of 1977, or the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 (a.k.a. “Freedom to Farm”), but more often, each act is simply referred to as “the Farm Bill.”

The Farm Bill determines what sort of foods we Americans eat.

While many people equate its programs and subsidies with assistance for struggling family farmers, the Farm Bill actually has two primary thrusts. Food stamps, school lunch, and other nutrition programs account for 50 percent of current spending — an average of $44 billion per year between 2000 and 2006. Income and price supports for a number of storable commodity crops combine for another 35 percent of spending.

In addition, the Farm Bill funds a range of other program “titles,” including conservation and environment, forestry, renewable energy, research, and rural development.

For decades, Farm Bill negotiations have been dominated by a tag-team of two powerful interest groups. The “farm bloc” (representatives from commodity states along with the agribusiness lobby) has orchestrated a quid pro quo with the anti-hunger caucus (urban representatives aligned with hunger advocacy groups). As a result, ever-increasing payments have been successfully directed toward surplus commodity production and the livestock feedlot industry. In return, the Farm Bill’s desperately needed hunger safety-net programs have survived relatively unscathed.

Who gets the money?

For the simplest answer, one might twist a line from Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign: “It’s the commodity groups, stupid.” Thanks to a growing number of nongovernmental, governmental, and mass-media resources, following the Farm Bill money trail is not that difficult. (Excellent places to start include the Environmental Working Group, Oxfam International, the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the Washington Post, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.)

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