How Does the U.S. Farm Bill Affect Sustainable Food?

With Congressional approval ratings somehow hitting a new low every year, you don’t need to explain why you might’ve tuned out debate over the federal Farm Bill. Even hardcore supporters of sustainable food probably lack the time and energy to keep up with the House and the Senate as they work to pass this huge bundle of agricultural regulations.

But somewhere, deep in the back of our minds, we know that there’s a reason for the fight over this great big piece of legislation. And you can’t shake that feeling for a reason: the U.S. Farm Bill is of vital importance to our country’s ability to feed itself. How, exactly, does it affect our tables, though? How can we ensure that it’s helping the people it should be helping? What does it mean for organic living and eco friendly foods, and why is an average farmer selling local vegetables at the market causing a bunch of suits in D.C. to lob insults left and right?

 What Is the Federal Farm Bill?

Before we talk about current agricultural legislation, it’s important to sketch out where the Farm Bill comes from and what it does. In 1933, our nation’s farms were in rough shape – even though years of drought had been rough on crops and soils (eventually leading to the Dust Bowl), modern agricultural practices had resulted in surpluses so large that food prices were bottoming out. Rural America was suffering, and farmers particularly so.

That year the Agricultural Adjustment Act, considered to be the first Farm Bill, was passed to give struggling farmers some measure of relief. The legislation ensured that farmers could grow crops for fair value, and that has been the promise at the heart of each successive version. Congress takes up the newest version about every six years, making necessary revisions and additions.

Of course, agriculture has changed quite a bit since 1933, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that today’s Farm Bill is hardly recognizable next to its Depression-era ancestor. The modern bill actually covers a number of programs structured under more than a dozen titles. These titles include commodities, nutrition, conservation, rural development and trade, and together they add up to around $969 billion over the course of a decade.

How Does the Farm Bill Impact You?

It makes sense, then, that the full scope of all the legislation under this giant umbrella is difficult to map out. A summary is not easy when you’re talking about ripples that extend outward to the energy sector, the treatment of livestock, sustainable food and restrictions on imports and exports. Even with the complicated nature of the Farm Bill, though, it’s not hard to spot direct effects on the ability of hundreds of millions of Americans to feed their families.

If new legislation is not passed when farm bill 1the most recent Farm Bill is set to expire, the price of food could skyrocket – some estimates even say that the cost of staples, like milk, could double. Farmers might see a momentary benefit from direct government purchase of crops at inflated prices, but because important protections against droughts, floods and other natural disasters will vanish, those gains will be only temporary. The net result would be hungry farmers and hungry consumers.

Failure to extend the legislation would cause further suffering when we account for the amount of funding in today’s Farm Bill that goes toward nutritional programs (almost 79% according to a 2012 study). That includes the modern version of food stamps, SNAP, as well as funding for school lunches, food banks and soup kitchens. Funding for these programs increased during our recent economic woes, and failure to renew that funding could have dire consequences for millions of working-poor Americans.

Is the Farm Bill Sinking Sustainable Food?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as “bad things happen when we fail to renew the Farm Bill and good things happen when it passes.” Author Michael Pollan points out that, as currently structured, the legislation leads to more government support for certain crops. The effective result is government subsidized corn, rice, wheat, cotton and soybean, while the local vegetables your favorite organic farmer sells are all but ignored.

Ever wonder why high fructose corn syrup is in just about every processed food you can name? Farmers receive government payments based on the amount of corn they can grow, and overproducing just leads to more cash. Too much corn means artificially low prices, and the extra expense of converting corn to a sweetener still compares favorably to the high cost of cane sugar. If you’ve ever had a Mexican Coke, which is made with real sugar, it all starts to make sense. There are no corn subsidies in Mexico.farm bill 2

Pollan, a sustainable food proponent, notes that the real price of fresh produce rose by almost 40% between 1985 and 2000. In that same timeframe, the real price of soft drinks dropped 23%. As he summarizes, “the reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the Farm Bill encourages farmers to grow.”

Today’s Heated Battles Over Agricultural Legislation

For some readers, it might be a revelation to hear that the government is supporting poor nutrition choices with the Farm Bill, but that’s not generating much controversy. The biggest fights center instead on the difference between insurance for farmers and the concept of direct payments. Farm insurance (also called crop insurance) is essentially what it sounds like: in the event of major damage to a farmer’s crops, livestock, soil or land, a percentage of their losses are covered. Direct payments are cash subsidies that pay a farmer for the crops he might expect his land to produce, regardless of whether he actually harvests those crops or not.

Critics of direct payments often cite these payments for phantom production as a waste of taxpayer dollars. Studies have also shown that a local farm which promotes sustainable food probably isn’t benefiting much from government subsidies, because 60% of American farmers don’t get a cent of these cash handouts. Who is getting that money? Well, in 2010, $394 million was sent to cities with more than 100,000 residents. That beautiful New York City farmland you saw on your last trip to midtown Manhattan netted over $800,000 for almost 300 investors, while 200 Los Angeles residents got $400,000 in subsidies to maintain all those fragrant orchards in the heart of Hollywood.

On the other hand, crop insurance also requires taxpayer funding. Farmers cover an average of 38 cents per dollar of insurance while the government (or, more accurately, everybody who pays taxes) pays the other 62 cents. Large agricultural corporations can enjoy the benefits of this slightly altered form of government subsidy, and there’s a new bad guy too: the insurance companies, who net an estimated $11.50 for every acre they insure.

And then there are the SNAP benefits. One of the major battles between the Senate and the House right now is over proposed cuts to food stamps – the version just passed by Democrats in the Senate proposes over $4 billion in cuts to SNAP, while House Republicans are pushing for a reduction of at least $20 billion. Food columnist Mark Bittman summarizes the battle over SNAP benefits in a telling way: Congressman Stephen Fincher, a Republican from Tennessee’s Eighth District, railed against food stamps on the House floor while collecting $3.48 million in farm subsidies from 1999 to 2012.

How Should Sustainable Food Advocates Approach the Debate?

farm bill 3Organic living supporters should note that another of the proposed cuts under debate is a $3.5 billion reduction in farmland conservation efforts. And if you’re into healthy meals for more American citizens, a $20 billion cut to food support for children, the elderly and the working poor is a pretty big deal. Meanwhile, extra emphasis on organic produce can help to support our nation’s small farms, as a shift to sustainable farming techniques can bring in premium prices at markets.

If you want the kinds of rules that are good for organic living and sustainable food, you’ll have to fight for it. It’s not a question of rallying for or against the Farm Bill – it’s a matter of making sure that your elected officials know which side of agriculture we should be supporting with our laws. Right now, it’s the biggest and most powerful agricultural companies who reap the most from federal legislation.

If you think local vegetables are more deserving of our support than a vat full of corn syrup, you’ll have to contact your Congresspeople and reach out to organizations like the Environmental Working Group to fight for environmental health. If your representatives won’t stand by you, help support candidates that understand the importance of sustainable food.

If you’d like to help continue a healthy debate over the U.S. Farm Bill, please wade into the discussion below.