Every five years or so, Congress promises a new, improved farm bill that will end unnecessary subsidies to big farmers, enhance the environment and actually do something to help small farmers and small towns. But what it usually does is find ways of disguising the old inequities, sending taxpayers dollars to wealthy farmers, accelerating the expansion of industrial farming, inflating land prices and further depopulating rural America.
The new five-year farm bill that could hit the Senate floor as early as this week promises more of the same — excessively generous handouts, combined with a serious erosion of environmental protections. The nearly trillion-dollar bill would provide over 10 years roughly $140 billion in farm subsidies, $55 billion or so in conservation programs and more than $750 billion in food stamp aid.
The subsidies have always been controversial. A mix of direct payments, price supports, loans, subsidized insurance and disaster relief, these subsidies provided protection for millions of farmers in the New Deal and afterward against the vicissitudes of the weather and the market. But in recent years, they have mainly lined the pockets of big farmers of big row crops who don’t need help, while ignoring the little guys who do.
As numerous studies from the Environmental Working Group have shown, the story of modern agriculture in this country is a story of concentration, of huge subsidies flowing to relatively few farmers who grow a handful of row crops — corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and rice — in a dozen or so Midwestern and Southern states.
Because farm subsidies, old and new, have been tied to production, those cultivating the largest acreage get the biggest payouts. The top 20 percent of recipients from 1995 to 2010 got 90 percent of the subsidies; the bottom 80 percent just 10 percent. Many farmers — well over half the total, by some estimates — get no help at all.
The Senate bill leaves these basic contours unaltered. One positive change is the elimination of an indefensible program of “direct subsidies” that showered $5 billion a year on farmers in good times and bad. But big farmers won’t be worse off. The Senate Agriculture Committee redirected much of the savings into a different subsidy — crop insurance, which pays farmers if they have a loss in revenue or crop yield.
The existing crop insurance program, which pays on average 60 percent of the cost of insurance premiums for farmers, has risen from about $2.4 billion in 2001 to about $8.7 billion in 2011, and is expected to cost $9 billion annually in the coming years. The committee also added a second insurance-related program that could cost an additional $3 billion a year. The main beneficiaries of crop insurance will still be the big farmers, who take out the biggest policies.
Beyond enshrining that status quo, the bill seriously threatens the environment. Because the committee insisted on generous insurance subsidies, it did not meet the reductions required by the 2011 Budget Control Act even after cutting the direct payments. So it trimmed $6 billion over 10 years from environmental programs, chiefly the Conservation Reserve Program, which rewards farmers for converting erodible farmland to grass and other vegetation. However flawed, the old subsidy programs required farmers to act as responsible stewards of the land — promising, among other things, not to drain wetlands. The crop insurance subsidies impose no such obligations.
Enriched by high prices (at least for now), cosseted by inexpensive insurance, relieved of their environmental obligations, farmers could well be inclined to start planting from fence line to fence line. That would be a severe blow to the American landscape.According to Kari, on April 20 the Senate Agriculture Committee approved a farm bill draft that fails to provide many of the food and farming nuts and bolts that Americans had thought would be in it. The bill is often referred to as The Food Bill because it might be the ultimate legislative mechanism determining what Americans eat. At a size of roughly $100 billion a year, through its subsidies and policies, it determines the types of crops that are grown, how we grow and sell food, how we support farmers, and what food assistance programs are available to all Americans. Last year in a poll 78 percent of you said making nutritious and healthy foods more affordable and accessible should be a top priority in the farm bill. That’s not in the bill.The heroically brilliant Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has seen that there is some modest new funding for local and healthy food programs, including a local food promotion program and a new incentive program that will double the value of food assistance dollars when used for healthy food purchases. Those provisions come from the Local Farms Food and Jobs Act. Those gains are real but the large agribusiness, under the rest of the legislation, will continue to gain subsidies worth tens of billions of taxpayer dollars . . . dollars going to the largest most profitable commodity crop growers and agribusinesses while drastically underfunding programs that support decentralized growth and subsidies aimed at distributing fruits and vegetables and local and healthy food. I think you should let your representative know that you want more of your tax dollars funding healthy food programs in the farm bill. Healthy food programs got jobbed, their support in the bill pales in comparison to the $140 billion in subsidies that will flow to the big five commodity crops (corn, soy, cotton, rice and wheat) that provide feed for livestock, raw material for processed food and corn ethanol fuel for our cars. In recent years, the farm bill has spent eight times more on commodity crops than on fruits and vegetables. This trend is expected to continue in this new farm bill. How awful, especially in a country where fewer than 5 percent of adults meet the USDA daily nutrition guidelines in their diets.Now that the bill has passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee, it will go to the Senate floor where Senators will debate and offer amendments to the bill before taking a full vote likely in early June. Do you want to help make sure that tens of millions of kids get a shot at forming a healthier eating habit by serving them fresh fruits and vegetables at school? You’ll support farmers who grow that food by helping to change the focus of the bill by talking to your representatives.The farm bill heading to the Senate floor contains only $150 million annually to provide school children with a healthy fruit and vegetable snack–only enough for children in 4,500 or 6 percent of our elementary schools. Even supporters of the current bill using the best arguments of fiscal responsibility, make no sense when the bill gives away unlimited crop insurance premium subsidies to wealthy farm operators at the expense of feeding hungry people. And it does nothing to protect our water and invest in healthy food. In fact, the Government Accountability Office has identified as much as $2 billion a year in available savings from modest cuts to crop insurance subsidies. Half would come from payment limits that affect just 4 percent of the growers in the program. The Senate should use these savings to more adequately fund nutrition programs and strengthen local and healthy food and organic agriculture. These investments could save billions in the long run by creating jobs and reducing health care costs. Some Senators understand this and will likely be introducing an amendment to redirect billions of dollars from commodity crops into healthy food and nutrition programs.Please send a general message of support for healthy food to your representative by clicking here.The bill still has a way to go before it becomes law. Once the bill gets voted out of the Senate, it will then go on to the House of Representatives where they are expected to write and approve their version of the bill. If the two bodies are then able to negotiate a compromise, there would likely be a final farm bill enacted into law before the previous bill expires in late September 2012.Jamie Oliver sent us this . . .
The most important law determining what America eats is about to be voted on in the U.S. Senate. With a $100 billion a year price tag, the Farm Bill dictates the types of crops that are grown, how farmers grow and sell the food you eat, and what food assistance programs are available.
The bill approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee cuts food assistance programs and underfunds programs that invest in local and healthy food. But, Senator Gillibrand (NY) is introducing an amendment to restore those cuts and redirect dollars to provide more support for local and healthy food programs and fruits and veggies in school.
We've signed a letter with more than 70 like-minded food leaders, chefs, advocates and organizations, including Dan Imhoff, Anna Lappe, Marion Nestle, Michael Pollen, Eric Scholosser, Alice Waters and the CSPI, urging the Senate to provide more support for healthy food in the Farm Bill. You can take action too by letting your senators know you want a Farm Bill that supports healthy food too.
With less than 5 percent of adults eating the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables, 1 in 3 American kids being overweight and diet related costs of chronic diseases in the US reaching an estimated $70 billion a year, things need to change.
In a national poll last year, 78 percent of Americans said that making nutritious and healthy foods more affordable and accessible should be a top priority in the Farm Bill. However, the bill approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee does not represent this. With the proposed bill being debated this week, now is the time to ask your senators to support this amendmentand stand up for local and healthy food.