When the last farm bill passed, small farmers and sustainable food advocates had a few things to celebrate, but not as many as they’d hoped for. The bulk of the funding for agriculture went to subsidize industrial-sized commodity farmers (producing corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice) in a big way. Congress voted to continue a pattern that, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), has allowed ten percent of the nation’s farms to collect 74 percent of all farm subsidies between 1995 and 2009, a total amounting to over $150 billion. Those subsidies are delivered in the form of direct payments, crop insurance, and something called counter-cyclical payments (for a primer on some of the wonky terminology in this article, try EWG’s Farm Subsidy Primer).
The 2008 bill did, however, include some bright spots. There was a rural microenterprise program, support for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, grants for value-added agriculture, and several strong conservation programs (incentives for farmers to be good stewards of the land, water and air). As it turns out, however, the implementation of these programs is dependent on funding that Congress (more specifically, the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee) then chooses to award — or not to award — on an individual basis every year. (You can see where this is going, can’t you?)
The Bad News
According to Susan Prolman of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the 2011 budget (which was only finalized this spring) was a disaster for these farm bill bright spots. “A lot of programs that NSAC supported really got crunched,” she said. “There’s a program called ATTRA that provided sustainable agriculture information to underserved communities — it got eliminated completely. Organic got hit. And at the same time, military spending went up.” As the subcommittee meets again to hammer out the appropriations for the next year, the same types of cuts are likely. (It’s no too late to stop next year’s cuts. See a related NSAC action alert.)
Prolman was speaking on a recent federal food policy panel called “The Hidden Cost of Cheap Food,” hosted by the Monterey Bay Aquarium as part of their Sustainable Foods Institute. She didn’t beat around the bush in talking about the 2012 Farm Bill. Prolman said she was told by the staff of senators on the committee, “ ‘If you can achieve level funding in any of your programs (i.e. not lose money), that is a victory.’”
A Bill With a Proud Past
As stark as this possibility sounds — that the 2012 Farm Bill is unlikely to make any advances in creating a more sustainable food system — it didn’t stop the panel of speakers from putting forth their visions for what they called a “rational” farm bill.
Rebecca Spector, west coast director for the Center for Food Safety, spoke to the origins of this legislation, initially intended to support farmers. When the first of such bills came about early in the last century, she said, “the nation faced conservation problems, and food pricing issues, and we were growing too many of the same crops. We’re seeing the same issues today, and we need to be asking: what do we want to be incentivizing?”
Spector and the other panelists pointed to the fact that the bulk of the subsidized crops go into either animal feed or common processed food ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup and soy lecithin. In the case of corn, ethanol is the other “elephant in the room” — it accounted for nearly 40% of the corn produced in the US last year.
Spector used California agriculture as an example of one casualty of the commodity payment system. “We’re the largest agriculture state, and 91% of our farmers do not receive any subsidies. And yet we’re growing all the fruit and vegetables.” When moderator and New York Times food and agriculture journalist William Neuman asked, “Are there enough fruits and vegetables grown in this country currently?” Prolman responded: “If everyone ate the recommended daily allowance, no — there wouldn’t be enough.”
Thomas Dobbs, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics at South Dakota State University, also spoke about the recent history of the bill.
“The ‘85 farm bill followed about 15 years of a building environmental movement,” he told the audience. It was the first time the environmental movement had real clout in the farm bill process, added Dobbs. “There were questions about whether crop subsidies would continue and there was essentially a bargain struck.” At that point, conservation programs, including Wetlands Conservation (a.ka. Swampbuster ) and Highly Erodible Land Conservation (a.k.a. Sodbuster), appeared. “These programs were very historic – and we’ve built on it ever since.” And, Dobbs pointed out, the bill also followed a farm crisis in the Midwest in the early ’80s.
“We’re point of crisis now, too,” said Dobbs. “We have an obesity crisis, a budget crisis, and a real questioning of the global competitiveness model…we’ve seen that there’s something pretty rotten about this free-market-for-the-masses and subsidies-for-the-big-people.”
On a similar note, NSAC’s Susan Prolman made it clear that ominous warnings about budget cuts won’t stop her organization from pushing for change.
“We’re calling for caps so that if you earn more than $250,000 on your farm you can’t get direct payments. And we’re also calling for tying any kind of direct payments to soil and water conversation practices, so that we’re not providing reverse incentives for farms to create environmental problems at the taxpayers’ expense.”
The True Cost of Commodity Crops
In addition to the cost to the environment, some believe the most damaging impact of commodity subsidies is the cost to public health. These policies make empty calories cheap by subsidizing the ingredients in processed food. Dr. Loel Solomon, Vice President of Community Health at Kaiser Permanente, drew a direct line from the farm bill to public health.
“By 2018 obesity is going to consume 350 billion dollars. One in five dollars is going to be spent dealing with health care costs of obesity-related illnesses,” he said. “If we start to think about the farm bill as a barrier to American competitiveness and the ability to grow our economy,” he added, “that really changes the constituency that wants to see a different kind of food system.”
CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of farmers markets and educational programs. Learn More »