by Marion Nestle
May 21 2012

Some comments on the progress of the farm bill

I haven’t said anything recently about the current status of the farm bill, mainly because it is too early in the political process to know what is going to happen.

On April 26, the Senate Ag Committee voted to pass the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012.

The bill still has a long way to go.  It must be passed by the Senate.  The House has to pass an equivalent bill.  The two bills must be reconciled.  The final bill must be signed by the President.

Otherwise, the current farm bill expires on September 30.

As is always the case with anything having to do with the farm bill, the devil is in the details.  The number of programs covered by the bill is vast, and the details even more so.

In efforts to align agricultural policy with health policy, the current proposal makes a little headway. The proposed bill funds:

  • $150 million annually for the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program
  • $50 million per year for the Defense Department Fresh program, which provides fresh fruits and vegetables to schools and service institutions
  • $70 million annually for the Specialty Crop Block Grant program
  • $25 million annually for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, to go to $50 million by 2017
  • $60 million in 2013 up to $65 million 2017 for pest and disease management programs
  • $200 million annually for The Market Access Program and $9 million for the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops program
  • $100 million over 5 years for the Hunger-Free Communities Grant Program for fruit and vegetable SNAP incentives
  • $100 million over 5 years for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program
  • $406 million annually for Section 32 specialty crop purchases

This looks like a lot—and from the standpoint of incremental change it is a lot—but these numbers are millions, not billions, and in farm bill terms can be considered “mere rounding errors.”

The farm bill currently costs taxpayers $85 billion a year, with $72 billion of that going for SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

The rest of the big money goes to the Big Agriculture growers of commodity crops, mainly in the form of crop insurance.

Here too, the proposed bill includes one small but significant measure.  For the first time, it provides for crop insurance for diversified farms—those that grow a variety of  “specialty” crops (translation: fruits and vegetables).

Even the most critical commentators think the current proposal, despite its evident flaws, represents the best that can be expected given current political realities.

Let’s hope the good parts of the proposal survive the rest of the legislative process.

Addition, May 24: A reader points out that another bright spot is that the Senate bill also included $125 million for the Healthy Food Financing Initiative.

  • Cathy Richards

    So nice to see changes in the right direction — very significant, even if the amounts attached aren’t that huge. Diversified farms — yahoo!!

  • Sea Wolf

    Clear as always. Correct as always. Can’t argue with the gist of what you’re saying. That said, allow me to quibble: the numbers above total $1.161 billion annually, which is nearly 9% of the $13 billion in annual non-SNAP farm bill spending. So while the smaller numbers especially represent rounding errors against the entire farm bill, the amount spent to support healthier food is a real (albeit far too small) percentage of “agricultural” spending in the farm bill. Just as a not-so-side note: I wish the SNAP program was handled by HHS or some other agency other than USDA so that the “farm” bill would be about exactly that, agriculture.

  • Matt

    I’d also like to note that this is an *authorizing* bill, not an *appropriations* bill.

    Based on my (admittedly relatively few) years watching Congress in action, Congressional authorizing committees like to put numbers in that reflect their policy preferences, but they effectively set a ceiling on what appropriators can do. Even if this bill becomes law, there’s no guarantee – indeed, I’d argue an infinitesimally small likelihood, especially with the current House and its views on deficits- that appropriations will come anywhere near what the authorizing committees had in mind.

    An authorization is nice, in that it gives some guidance to the appropriators. But when it comes time to actually write checks, lawmakers tend to be more conservative. These days, a *lot* more conservative.

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  • FarmerJane

    I as a farmer would be a lot healthier if I knew that I could speak out at public hearings on market concentration without fear of being served a subpoena and hauled in for depositions by processors. My cooperative would be healthier if we had many choices of where to market our farms’ milk to other than someone related to a single company. We’d be healthier if consumers even knew more about these issues. All of this and food is related to absolute raw, unfettered power of massive global corporations. None of these government initiatives touch the power centers. The Obama antitrust unit related to agriculture is relatively small. I would love to see Dr. Nestle write on the the political powers behind food.

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