Congress Made a Terrible Mistake in Letting the Farm Bill Expire

What to eat. What not to eat.
Oct. 31 2012 1:22 PM

The Farm Bill Matters

The legislative behemoth is 700 pages of subsidies and subparagraphs. But if we want a healthy, sustainable food future, we have to get it right.

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When deficit hawks looked for big numbers to cut from the agriculture budget earlier this year, food stamps were an easy target. Since 2001, the number of U.S. citizens enrolled in the food stamp program, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, has increased from 17 million to 46 million. The Senate bill proposed a $4 billion decrease in SNAP benefits over 10 years; the House’s committee bill called for a $16 billion reduction; Paul Ryan’s budget included $134 billion in cuts to SNAP benefits.

The truth is that shrinking SNAP would devastate the poor, especially children. Even with recent increases to daily meal stipends, the SNAP program remains woefully inadequate to the task of helping poor Americans put three meals on their tables, let alone eat a healthy diet. A single person on food stamps receives $6.67 per day; a member of a large family gets $5. For better or worse, the Farm Bill is America’s first defense against hunger and an onslaught of nutrition-related diseases, and the SNAP program should be seen as a cornerstone of a national health policy. Funding should remain at current spending levels to support all those who are eligible. Furthermore, the new Farm Bill could improve access to healthy food among people who rely on federal assistance by installing Electronic Benefits Transfer machines in farmers markets, boosting incentives to buy fruits and vegetables, and ramping up healthy snack programs in schools.

The other major issue that Congress left unsettled by abandoning the 2012 Farm Bill is crop insurance, now the biggest form of government support to agriculture. Or, as critics ranging from the Environmental Working Group to the American Enterprise Institute argue, the latest government handout scam. As of the passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, taxpayers fund 60 percent of farmers’ insurance premiums through a subsidy to private companies. They also cover a sizable portion of the insurance industry’s costs to run these programs. (In this drought- and heat-ravaged year of 2012, crop insurance payments alone are expected reach $20 billion to $25 billion, up from approximately $1 billion in 2000.)

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Unlike crop subsidies, crop insurance has no strings attached. Formerly, to get a subsidy, a landowner had to comply with basic conservation measures—for instance, they weren’t allowed to plant on highly erodible soils or drain low-lying wetlands. By contrast, government-subsidized crop insurance is actually fueling an expansion of commodity cropping on millions of acres formerly considered marginally productive. It doesn’t matter that this depletes resources and destroys habitats; taxpayers will pick up the tab even if farmers fail to harvest or turn a profit from their crops. Conservation requirements benefit growers and the public alike by preventing soil erosion, filtering water, and providing natural habitat. A serious Farm Bill would not give a single penny to crop insurance programs without requiring conservation compliance from its beneficiaries. Ultimately, all subsidy programs should once again be oriented around environmental stewardship.

There is a silver lining as we await Congress’ next move. Food and farm policy is also made at the state level, often through the initiative process. In 2008, Californians passed Proposition 2, which banned cruel livestock confinement techniques such as tiny pens for laying hens and crates that trap breeding sows for life. Nearly two-thirds of the state’s voters supported more humane standards, and that law had a ripple effect across the nation. This Nov. 6, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, which aims to provide transparency to consumers by requiring labels on foods containing genetically modified ingredients. If the initiative passes despite opposition from some of the world’s most powerful agribusinesses, it could serve as a national proxy vote. With 38 million residents—approximately 12 percent of the U.S. population—and a $2 trillion economy, the California market is so large that if food producers have to change labels there, they’ll do it everywhere. As the expectations of the food movement in liberal pockets of the country rise farther above the realities of national politics, we will increasingly see state battles like California’s shaping national policy.

But that’s no excuse for neglecting federal legislation. Unfortunately, Congress has few incentives to get serious about the bill anytime soon. Recent Farm Bill politics may directly affect only a handful of races this year, mainly in the Midwest. Concerned citizens elsewhere currently have little recourse beyond calling their legislators (as the nonprofit National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has suggested people do in tandem on Nov. 15). Journalist Michael Pollan recently argued that the outcome of Proposition 37 will show whether there is an organized food movement in America. But the food movement has a long way to go before it has any hope of overhauling Farm Bill politics as usual.

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Slate’s coverage of food systems is made possible in part by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.