Digest – Food and Farm Bill special

Photo of pumpkins from joe shlabotnik's flickr collectionFor some pre-Halloween thrills and chills, this digest is all about that zombie-, vampire- and Frankenstein-filled piece of legislation called the Food and Farm Bill.

Late last week, the Senate Agriculture Committee completed its work on the bill and sent it to the full Senate, where it will be debated in a few weeks. The debate could be action packed (in a legislative sense) because Senate rules allow unlimited amendments and there are quite a few reform plans that did not receive a hearing in committee (some of these topics were covered by the Center for Rural Affairs last week).

Before we get into the somewhat discouraging news about the lack of reform in the Ag Committee’s proposal, we’ll start with a few treats:

  • The Organic Trade Association points out that in the Senate version, the USDA will not be allowed to charge an insurance surcharge for organic crops unless the charge can be justified by historical loss data; the proposal also provides $22 million in new funds to help farmers transition to organic (but is this mandatory or optional funding?).
  • USA Today’s Diana Marreno writes about the proposal to expand that fresh fruit and vegetable snack program for school kids to all fifty states (it currently serves fourteen). Incidentally, this is one of Sen. Harkin’s favorite programs.
  • Over at Gristmill, Tom Philpott sees a bright spot in a ban on ownership of animals by meatpackers. The current rules give too much power to the big packers (just a handful control over 75% of the market in each sector) to set prices, growing conditions and so forth. The very powerful meat industry will certainly put up a fight over this.
  • The Ag Committee’s proposal includes additional money for conservation programs. Ducks Unlimited and their partners applaud the Senate’s commitment to conservation.

And now on to the tricks…

The consensus in the media is that the Ag Committee proposal offers a few incremental changes, but certainly nothing that looks like real reform. Most interest groups offer lukewarm approval, usually expressing hope for more funding for their particular sector.

The Senate Agriculture Committee’s web pages contain the actual legislation if you want to dig into the details or look for "tricks" that might be hiding. Sen. Harkin’s (D-IA) statement on the Chairman’s Mark is a reasonably concise explanation of the committee’s proposal.

Philip Brasher at the Des Moines Register reports on the committee deliberations and presents a helpful comparison of the Senate and House versions of the bill.

Michael Doyle of the Bee newspapers focuses on the nutrition portion of Senate Committee’s proposal, which loosens some of the rules governing food stamp eligibility and extends the period of time that an unemployed person can receive benefits. It also modifies the rules about how many assets a beneficiary can possess by indexing the limit to inflation and excluding dedicated retirement (e.g., IRA, 401-k) and education accounts from the calculation.

The Muncie Free Press reports on the attempts of Sen. Lugar (R-IN) to steer a fraction of direct payments into nutrition programs. Although his amendment to make these changes were voted down in the Ag Committee, he promises to offer an alternative farm bill during the floor debate that significantly changes how farm programs operate.

In an OpEd in the Washington Post, Elizabeth Becker offered an insightful explanation of why the subsidy reform movement has gone nowhere this year (or in previous years). She argues that the food stamp program is "…the strategic beauty of the farm bill. While it is written in the Agriculture Committees — where the 30 farm districts that receive two-thirds of the subsidies are well represented — the bill wins support from the overwhelmingly urban and suburban Congress by virtue of its nutrition section, which authorizes the food stamp program." Nutrition programs account for about two-thirds of the Senate bill’s $275 billion price tag (over five years).

FarmPolicy.com is a great place to follow Food and Farm Bill developments. The Friday and Saturday editions offers reactions to the Senate plan from the news media (including some subscription-only sources).


Tell Your Senators What You Think

The full Senate plans to debate the bill during the week of November 5 so there is still time to contact your Senators. Although it looks like major reform is not likely, there are some changes that could push agricultural policy in the right direction. Some of these items :

  • Reduce the maximum size of EQIP grants from $450,000 to $240,000. In recent years, the conservation program called EQIP has been used by CAFOs to comply with anti-pollution laws — laws they should have been complying with (using their own money) from the day they started filling the lagoons with manure.
  • Maintain the ban on ownership of livestock by meatpackers.
  • Decrease the maximum allowable income allowed for subsidy recipients. The current law allows millionaires to receive subsidy payments. Do we want our limited farm subsidy funds to support "farmers" from urban areas who own some land as an investment? Or should the farm programs help small family farms?
  • Reduce the maximum payment limit for any one farm. Sen. Grassley (R-IA) is one of the leaders of the effort to reduce the limit to $250,000 per farm.

We probably overlooked a few important items; let us know what we missed in the comments.

Photo of deteriorating pumpkins from Joe Shlabotnik’s flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

3 Responsesto “Digest – Food and Farm Bill special”

  1. Kei says:

    Apparently, the new Farm Bill has some sort of “safety net” to protect corn growers in the event of crop failure in “an era of higher commodity prices”. This is confusing. As I understand it, the Farm Bill was originally conceived to provide aid to farmers during the Depression, and b/c of low crop prices. So how could growers possibly expect subsidies during an ethanol boom (when they’re probably eligible for payments provided for through energy-related subsidies) and higher commodity prices? Or is this another crop insurance program?
    While I understand that food and say, cars, are not the same thing, why does is this industry entitled to so much government support? If car sales are strong and prices are high, the US government doesn’t issue payments to GM if they still can’t unload their cars or if a strike cripples them and production is hurt.

  2. Ah the farm bill … this regulation here, at the USDA, this program there, at the FDA. What if we cut out several billion dollars of redundancy and made one food agency?


  3. Kei wrote: “Apparently, the new Farm Bill has some sort of ‘safety net’ to protect corn growers in the event of crop failure in ‘an era of higher commodity prices’.”

    The problem seems to be that current payment programs are set so that a farmer will be compensated for crop failure only when prices are low or when he or she has crops to sell (which, of course, is a problem when there is a crop failure). Unfortunately, I do not understand why that is so.

    Margie wrote: “What if we cut out several billion dollars of redundancy and made one food agency?”

    That is a good question. The current patchwork system is inefficient and dangerous to consumers. Some in Congress, like Sen. Durbin (D-IL) and Rep. DeLauro (D-CT) have submitted legislation annually for the last few years to create a single food safety agency.

    I’ve written about the subject a few times: Sales vs. safety in the USDA’s strategic plan, More on the Safe Food Act of 2007, and Food Safety a High Risk Federal Program, Says the GAO.