Outside of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to urge kids to exercise more and eat better, this administration remains largely indifferent to the disaster that is the country’s outdated food and agriculture policy. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack recently argued that rural America has become politically irrelevant—a possible explanation for why the House refused to even consider a vote on a new Farm Bill last year. Maybe it’s something else. It could be that the present Congress and Administration are simply clueless about the severity of our food and farming crises.
Riding the coattails of the fiscal cliff bargain, the 2008 Farm Bill—three months past its “renew by” date—got a nine-month extension shortly after New Year’s Day. The extension could have included funds to preserve programs that help rural America and rebuild a food and farming system around the challenges of the 21st century. Instead, the policy—concocted in backdoor fashion without any public input—might as well have been written by lobbyists from the crop insurance, finance and agrochemical industries.
The Farm Bill extension bears little resemblance to the plan hotly debate and passed by the Senate last summer. While by no means ideal, that Senate plan would have clipped excessive commodity subsidies and reduced but still preserved important programs for conservation, organic agriculture, and rural development. This Farm Bill extension will continue sending $5 billion in direct payments to landowners whether they farm or not, whether they experience losses or not. (Both Republicans and Democrats favor eliminating such subsidies.) By extending rather than writing a new five-year Farm Bill, Congress did, however, manage to avert the dreaded “dairy cliff.” This would have reverted to a 1949 dairy subsidy program causing milk prices to spike to about $7 a gallon.
Kicking the Farm Bill down the road means we continue to invest in a backward agriculture policy. Because nothing was done to reform cotton subsidies, the US will continue to send $150 million in 2013 to Brazilian cotton farmers. This is the result of a lingering World Trade Organization ruling that declared previous US cotton supports trade distorting. Meanwhile, as Brazilian farmers benefit from the Farm Bill extension, the big losers are dozens of programs that train the next generation of US farmers and ranchers, invest in on-farm renewable energy, assist organic growers, expand farmers markets, and rebuild the infrastructure of a regionally-diversified food system.
Contrary to what many might think, the US faces a mounting list of rather alarming food and farming related challenges. Over 15 percent of the American population—mostly retired, disabled, children or underemployed—depend on food stamps, the largest budget item in the Farm Bill. Last year’s severe drought affected two-thirds of all agricultural counties, impacting crop yields, raising grain prices, and forcing livestock owners to sell off herds. Unpredictable weather patterns, we are told, are now the norm. “Superweeds” occupy 60 to 80 million acres of the country’s farmland as a result of a large-scale shift to genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant crops. Our research budgets into innovative farming strategies to address such problems are shrinking rather than expanding.
The Farm Bill exists to address problems, like these, that are not easily solved by the free market. A smarter Farm Bill would offer assistance to farmers to take care of natural resources, help for those who can’t get enough to eat, and funding for forward-thinking research to help farmers stay ahead of environmental challenges.
The good news is that the door is not yet closed on a Farm Bill. The most recent short-term extension means that a new five-year Farm Bill could be written and voted on by September. Despite “Farm Bill fatigue” setting in among many citizens who care about agriculture policy, the time to set the terms of this debate is now, as Congress struggles with the challenge of fiscal austerity and the national debt. We still have the opportunity to make the changes necessary for a healthier, more secure, and conservation-based food system. Representatives need to repeatedly hear our concerns.
Here are a few ideas that voters should be pestering the 113th Congress about:
Full funding for conservation programs to protect topsoil, clean air, fresh water and safeguard natural habitat;
Reform of the crop subsidy rules to exclude millionaires from government handouts and limit how much an individual entity can receive;
Changes to crop insurance including limits on federal funding to insurance companies and strict environmental stipulations for farming operations that enroll;
Expanded support for sustainable and organic agriculture through cost-share programs, research, and market development;
Continuation of programs that invest in a new generation of farmers and ranchers;
Initiatives aimed at increasing the accessibility and affordability of healthy nutritious foods, particularly among the young and aging.
Holding our collective breath for change won’t help. The healthy food movement needs to speak more loudly and preferably in unison on these issues. Otherwise we’ll get more of the same: food and agriculture policy that is clueless about the real problems we face in the years ahead.
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