by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Farm-policy

Nov 26 2012

The farm bill is still in limbo. Now what?

My NYU Food Policy class meets tonight and we’ll be talking about the farm bill and Dan Imhoff’s most helpful book Food Fight: The Citizens’ Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill.

To review what’s up with the 2012 farm bill:

Congress updates farm bills every five years or so.  It passed the last one in 2008, with an expiration date at midnight on September 30, 2012.  This was the first time Congress ever set an expiration date to land in the midst of a presidential election.  This was asking for trouble.  Congress is paralyzed in election years.

That date has now come and gone.

But in June 2011, the Senate passed its version of the bill: The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012.

The House, however, was unable to come to agreement on its version: The Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2012.

Why?  Election-year politics and disagreements about whether and by how much the SNAP (food stamps) budget should be cut.  More than 80% of farm bill spending goes to SNAP benefits—a whopping $72 billion last year–making it a prime target for budget cutting.

This situation puts us in farm bill limbo.

The significance of limbo is best explained by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC).

  • Without a new farm bill, commodity (corn, soybean, etc) support programs revert to permanent law contained in the farm bills passed in 1938 and 1949.  Why?  Because unlike subsequent bills, these did not have expiration dates.
  • The old laws reintroduce much higher support prices (through certain loans instead of payments), require much smaller crop production, and lead to much higher consumer prices.  They do not include  support for soybeans, other oilseeds, peanuts, or sugar, making them woefully out of date.
  • Limbo has no effect on SNAP or crop insurance.  Congress covered SNAP with a resolution for continued funding through March 2013.  The Federal Crop Insurance Act effectively authorizes crop insurance permanently.
  • Dairy programs are in turmoil.  Milk payments to farmers ended in September.  The dairy price support program ends on January 1.   Under the 1949 law, government-supported prices would be about four times higher than current law and about twice as high as current market prices.
  • The Agricultural Appropriations Act extended some—but not all—conservation programs through 2014.
  • The permanent law does not support the hard-won programs that encourage fruit and vegetable production: organic, farmers’ market, beginning farmer, socially disadvantaged farmer, or specialty crop programs.  These now have no funding.

This leaves Congress with three options between now and January:

  • Finish the current process and pass a bill (unlikely since it only has a few weeks to do this)
  • Vote to extend provisions through the 2013 crop year, or
  • Start from scratch all over again in a much tighter budget environment—the infamous “fiscal cliff.”

As NSAC explains:

The farm bill is the nation’s major food and agricultural policy vehicle and is about much more than the big ticket items: food stamps, crop insurance, and commodity support.  The farm bill is also about conservation and environmental protection, rural economic and community development, food system reform and agricultural research.

With no new farm bill or extension, the programs that address rural and urban job creation, natural resource conservation, renewable energy, and improved production and access to healthy food are in big trouble.

This is a big mess, and a serious result of dysfunctional government.  It will be interesting spectator sport to see how Congress handles it.

Will Congress find a way to bring agricultural policy in line with health policy?

Or will Congress simply do whatever is most expedient, given the budgetary mess it has also created.

It’s too bad so much is at stake.

Nov 14 2012

Where are we on the farm bill and where should we be?

The best explanation of what’s happening with the long-delayed 2012 farm bill comes from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.  In September, it produced a still very much relevant Q and Aon the topic. The 2008 farm bill expired without being renewed.  If Congress does not act soon, farm policy will be in big trouble. Here are some brief excerpts:

What is the relationship between the farm bill and the automatic budget cuts scheduled for January 1? The new farm bill, when and if it becomes law, will cut more spending from farm bill programs overall, on a net basis, than the automatic budget cuts scheduled to begin on January 1 under the requirements of the Budget Control Act of 2011…Whether Congress postpones the start date for automatic cuts or in other ways amends the Budget Control Act when it returns to DC after the elections is one of the biggest issues hanging over the lame duck session.

What are the farm bill choices that Congress has during the lame duck session? There are two theories about what happens next.  In one, the House returns after the elections and finally brings its bill to the floor, passes the bill with amendments, the House and Senate versions then get reconciled in a farm bill “conference” committee, and a melded final bill is…sent to the President for his signature — all within the three to five weeks of the short “lame duck” session. In the other theory, Congress returns after the election and works out the details of a bill to extend, with some modifications, the 2008 Farm Bill until a date in the spring, summer, or fall of 2013.  Under this scenario, the new session of Congress that begins in January (and lasts for the next two years) will start the five-year farm bill process all over again, with both House and Senate Agriculture Committees formulating a new bill that will then go through the entire legislative process all over again….

Could a new Congress next year simply revert to the farm bills passed this year? No, not exactly.  Legislation does not carry forward from one Congress to the next.  The process must start all over again, with bills introduced, markups in Committee, and votes on the floor of both bodies… That said, if the leaders and members of the Agriculture Committees (some of whom will be new next year) decide to bring forth and approve essentially the same bill they produced in 2012, that is an option open to them.  But it still must go through the normal process and be subject to amendments and voting all over again.

What is the best path forward? There can be little doubt that the best path forward is for Congress to finish its work on the 2012 Farm Bill in 2012.  That will mean getting the House bill to the House floor very quickly when the lame duck session begins, but leaving plenty of time for debate and amendments.

Sigh.  The Q and A explains the consequences of congressional inaction.  The elephant in the farm bill, of course, is SNAP (formerly food stamps), which accounts for roughly 80% of farm bill spending at a time when budget cuts head the congressional agenda.  The most recent data show SNAP participation—and, therefore, costs—to be at a record high: more than 47 million.

As to what to do about the farm bill: The Atlantic has just posted a speech by Wendell Berry on “the 50-year farm bill.”

I have described the need for a farm bill that makes sense of and for agriculture — not the fiscal and political sense of agriculture, as in the customary five-year farm bills, but the ecological sense without which agricultural sense cannot be made, and without which agriculture cannot be made sustainable. “A 50-Year Farm Bill,” which has been in circulation now for more than three years, is a proposal by The Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, with the concurrence of numerous allied groups and individuals. This bill addresses the most urgent problems of our dominant way of agriculture: soil erosion, toxic pollution of soil and water, loss of biodiversity, the destruction of farming communities and cultures. It addresses these problems by invoking nature’s primary law, in default of which her other laws are of no avail: Keep the ground covered, and keep it covered whenever possible with perennial plants.

We need a farm bill that promotes health–of people and the planet.  Buried in the messy politics of the farm bill is an opportunity to do much good.

Will Congress take it?  Only if we insist.

Sep 22 2012

The Farm Bill: R.I.P.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has this to say about our dysfunctional Congress’s leaving town without passing the 2012 Farm Bill:

In a year that has brought its share of challenges to America’s farmers and ranchers, the House Republicans have added new uncertainty for rural America.

Unfortunately, House Republicans left Washington without passing comprehensive, multi-year food, farm and jobs legislation, leaving thousands of farming families exposed.

U.S. agriculture is fighting to maintain the tremendous momentum it has built over the past three years, but with natural disasters and other external forces threatening livelihoods of our farmers and ranchers, certainty is more important than ever.

Americans deserve a food, farm and jobs bill that reforms the safety net for producers in times of need, promotes the bio-based economy, conserves our natural resources, strengthens rural communities, promotes job growth in rural America, and supports food assistance to low-income families. Without the certainty of a multi-year bill, rural communities are being asked to shoulder undue burdens.

Aug 17 2012

To ponder over the weekend: What to do about corn and biofuels

Think about this over the weekend.

Among the other consequences of the current drought—along with the ruin of this year’s corn crop—is a complicated political battle over who gets the corn.

The players:

  • Corn producers: Want high prices.  Don’t care whether meat or ethanol producers get the corn.  Note: Many own their own ethanol refineries.
  • Meat producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Do not want corn grown for ethanol.  Want the ethanol quota waived.
  • Ethanol producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Want to keep the quota.
  • International aid agencies: Want corn to be grown for food and feed, not fuel.  Want the ethanol quota waived.

The ethanol quota:

Three big industries—corn agribusiness, industrial meat, ethanol—plus international agencies have a stake in the U.S. corn crop.

How should the Obama administration handle this?

  • Waive the ethanol quota?
  • Keep the ethanol quota?
  • Do nothing?
  • Do something else?  If so, what?
Aug 8 2012

Question for today: how should we support mid-size dairy farms?

My “thought for a summer weekend” post elicited interesting comments.

Let’s start with the one from FarmerJane, a mid-size dairy farmer who is a frequent contributor.

She asks: How can farmers and consumers find ways to dialog and share information?

She says (and I’m doing some heavy editing here, with her permission):

Thoughts about ag are dominated by a few powerful big media writers.  When we farmers try to speak, we find ourselves excoriated….Rural America does not seem to have any sort of spokesperson who has access to national media.  The issues are framed by a handful of urban food-elite writing whose thoughts then trickle down to how rural farmers are perceived…I think the inclusion of farmers in food dialog would bring a multidisciplinary approach to the issue of food:  environment, ag economics, animal welfare, food systems to name a few. But what are the ways this could happen?

I feel that we, the average farmer of the middle are being marginalized.

I asked: What would you like to see done for farmers like you, neither CAFO, nor small.  She had several suggestions, which I summarize here mostly in my words (hers are in quotes):

Fix milk marketing orders and “end-product” pricing.  Right now, prices are paid to farmers according to the use of the milk.  From high prices to low: Class I (fluid milk), Class II (yogurt), Class III (cheese), Class IV(butter/powder).  If the push is to turn milk into yogurt, cheese, or butter, dairy farmers don’t get paid as much.

Encourage local production.  “The eastern half of the country is actually in “milk deficit” of about 3.2 billion pounds per month, while the western half is pushing the milk out like there is no tomorrow…Farmers in the western part of the country are calling for supply management to rein in some of this rapid growth, while we here in the east are generally opposed to it.”

Make pricing more transparent.  “Farmers don’t know instantly what dairy prices are (hopefully this will change as farmers have pushed hard on this issue to come out of the Stone Age).”

Cap supports on CAFOs.  “Some of the major NY CAFO’s got millions in terms of ‘corn subsidies’ in addition to dairy payments.”

Support mid-size dairy herds: The trigger point at which a farm becomes a CAFO in NY is only 200 cows.  Extension estimates that meeting CAFO requirements at this limit keeps farmers at 199 cows because the compliance cost is something like $162,000.

Reregionalize dairy processing: “meaning more processors in NY who can compete for the farmers’ milk….The more competition for milk the better, especially from a number of smaller processors that farmers and smaller coops can negotiate with.”

Deal with anti-competitive forces. Large dairies are engaged in market collusion and this hurts smaller dairies.  “ Massive retail level buyer consolidation is another issue… Walmart has the power to drive down farmer prices in all dairy categories… The more we can do to break the Walmart grip, the better off we all will be.”

Look at the trends.  “ I know that NY has gone from 30,000,000 acres of farmland when we were kids, to just 7,000,000 today.  There are some 3,000,000 acres of abandoned grazing farmlands Upstate, with empty barns as far as one can see in some areas.  And, I see an increasing number of huge CAFO’s with all-immigrant work forces who send every penny home, cows that never go outdoors, and emptied out Main Streets up here….I wonder how it could possibly make sense not to encourage farms of all kinds, especially making use of the grasslands that are close to NYC.”

Her overall question: “How does one move these questions into the public realm for intelligent discussion?

Senator Gillibrand has made it her business to understand dairy policies as they affect New York State.  For anyone who has ever tried to understand milk marketing orders, that’s an achievement (see below).

Responses?  Any good ideas for FarmerJane?

Jul 16 2012

The House version of the farm bill: dysfunction or posturing?

Is this the way to make law?

After a 13-hour mark-up session that lasted past midnight last week, the House Agriculture Committee approved, 35-11, its version of the 2012 Farm Bill.

The bill is so flawed that USDA Tom Vilsack felt compelled to issue a critical statement:

Americans deserve a farm and jobs bill that reforms the safety net for producers in times of need, promotes the bio-based economy, conserves our natural resources, strengthens rural communities,  promotes job growth in rural America, and supports food assistance to low-income families. 

Unfortunately, the bill produced by the House Agriculture Committee contains deep cuts in SNAP, including a provision that will deny much-needed food assistance to 3 million Americans, mostly low-income working families with children as well as seniors. The proposed cuts…wouldn’t just leave Americans hungry – they would stunt economic growth.  The bill also makes misguided reductions to critical energy and conservation program efforts.

For the politics of what the House Ag Committee is doing, Politico has a good summary.  According to its analysis, the problems with the bill are so enormous that it is unlikely that the House will ever get to it. 

The reality is that GOP leaders are worried about a messy floor fight over divisive regional policies months before voters head to the ballot boxes. Odd couples could abound: The far left and far right would likely vote against the bill on the floor, the former thinking the bill cuts too much from food stamps, the latter insisting cuts aren’t deep enough.

There’s also division over how much the government should be subsidizing the farm industry and whether it should control commodity prices. Arguing complex farm policy on the House floor in this political climate gives many Republican members pause.

If the House can’t pass a bill, then it would go into negotiations with the Senate with a weak negotiating stance.

…Now, they’ll likely have to grit their teeth and vote to extend current policy. And that will come only after rural lawmakers go home for all of August and face questions about why the bill hasn’t been debated on the House floor.

The Environmental Working Group gives ten reasons to reject the House bill:

  • Cuts Nutrition Assistance
  • Gives Big Farmers a Big Raise
  • Expands Crop Insurance by $9.5 billion
  • Cuts Conservation Programs by $6 billion
  • Lacks Protections for Prairies
  • Includes Anti-Environmental Riders
  • Has Few Incentives for Healthy Diets
  • Weakens Regulation of GMO Crops
  • Guts State Food and Farm Standards
  • Repeals Organic Certification Program

Fixing the farm bill is a formidable challenge. 

But aren’t lawmakers supposed to take on such challenges as part of what we elected them to do?

Jul 9 2012

House Ag Committee’s farm bill cuts SNAP, breaks deal, should be opposed

I’m in Europe trying to keep up with the farm bill from afar.  The House Ag Committee has come up with a a 557-page “discussion draft” of what it cutely calls the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management (FARRM) Act.

Its stated purposes are to (1) cut spending, (2) reduce the size of government, and (3) “make common-sense reforms to agricultural policy.”

The first two make the third goal an oxymoron.  I don’t see how #3 is possible, given #1 and #2.

Unlike the Senate version, the House bill:

  • Cuts current spending by $35 billion over 10 years (as compared to the Senate’s $23 billion or so).
  • Takes the difference out of SNAP (food stamps).  The proposed cut is $16 billion compared to $4.5 billion in the Senate version, an action that is ostensibly supposed to improve “program integrity and accountability.”

As Politico puts it, the House is

demanding deeper cuts from nutrition programs for the poor while embracing a greater government role in supporting farmers — something that won’t sit well with tea party conservatives.

Virtually all of that difference is explained by the much larger savings from food stamps — a $16 billion-plus package that triples what the Senate approved and imposes tougher income and asset tests that will disqualify hundreds of thousands of working-class households now getting aid.

The proposed deep cuts to SNAP are shocking for two reasons:

  • The harm they will do to low-income households
  • The breach in the long-standing deal that put SNAP in the farm bill in the first place

SNAP is in the farm bill because rural states needed the votes of urban states to pass subsidies and other supports for Big Ag producers of commodities.

This deal worked for states with large numbers of urban poor.  If their representatives voted for farm supports, farm-state representatives would vote for SNAP benefits.

This was classic logrolling.

Is the deal now breaking down?   Is Congress really willing to sacrifice benefits to the poor to maintain benefits for Big Ag?

According to The Hill, the House cuts are nothing but political posturing:

Rep. Collin Peterson (Minn.), the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, agreed to the cuts as a pragmatic way of moving forward with legislation important to rural lawmakers.

In an interview with The Hill, he said much of the cuts would be restored in a conference with the Senate.

…Peterson said he would have made different reforms to food stamps, and had offered an alternative plan to the GOP that was rejected. He defended his decision to back the final product as both pragmatic and politically savvy.

“It is what had to be done in order to get through committee and through the House floor,” he said.

Pragmatic and politically savvvy?  Let’s hope he’s right.

Anti-hunger advocates, however, are taking no chances.  They gathered in Washington this week to oppose the cuts.

This is a critical time.  Add your voice!

Jun 22 2012

The Senate passed its version of the farm bill. Now what?

It’s difficult to know what to say about a 1010-page bill that affects literally hundreds of programs, some big, some small, at such astronomical cost—an expected $97 billion per year.  The bill is so big and so complex that it is unreasonable to expect legislators to understand it well enough to vote on it intelligently.  Think of it as a prime example of special interests in action.

I’ve been collecting e-mailed responses from various groups.  From these, it’s seems that the food movement scored a few wins along with plenty of losses.

First the wins.  The United Fresh produce association is happy that the bill provides for:

  • Specialty Crop Block Grants funded at $70 million per year
  • Specialty Crop Research Initiative funded at $25 million in FY13; $30 million in FY14-15; $65 million in FY16; $50 million in FY17
  • Plant Pest and Disease Program funded at $60 million in FY13-16 and $65 million in FY17
  • Market Access Program and Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops fully funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels
  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program fully funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels
  • Hunger-Free Communities Grant Program for fruit and vegetable SNAP incentives
  • Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program
  • Section 32 specialty crop purchases funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels
  • DoD Fresh program fully funded at $50 million per year consistent with 2008 levels

Oxfam likes two things:

  • It converts the 2008 pilot program to study the effectiveness of purchasing food aid locally and regionally to a full program funded at $40 million per year.
  • It tries to reduce dumping of food aid on developing country markets.

Everyone else is mixed or skeptical:

  • From Food and Water Watch: “Today, the U.S. Senate passed a farm bill that left the largest agribusiness and food processing companies firmly in control of America’s food system.”
  • From the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition: “While the bill includes historic commodity payment limit reforms and renewed investments in a variety of sustainable farm and food programs…[it] would benefit greatly from more agriculture reform, a greater local and regional food focus, and a much greater commitment to economic development and jobs…We are also disappointed with the $3.7 billion cut to conservation programs on working farms and ranches.”
  • From the Environmental Working Group: “While we do not support this bill, we applaud the provisions that require farmers who receive crop insurance subsidies to carry out basic environmental protections on their farms and to reduce insurance subsidies for the largest and most successful agribusinesses.”

The debates over the farm bill hold some interesting lessons.

  • The historic “logrolling” alliance between rural states favoring commodity support and urban states protecting food assistance programs (SNAP, food stamps) may soon come to an end.  Senator Ron Johnson’s (Rep-WI) motion to separate SNAP benefits from farm supports was allowed four minutes of discussion.  It failed on a vote of 59 to 40 (all Republicans).  Forty?  That seems like a lot.
  • Labeling of genetically engineered foods remains an issue in American politics and not likely to go away.  The Senate voted down an amendment to allow states to decide for themselves whether to label such foods.  How will this affect the California “lets label it” initiative?
  • Crop insurance will be the new focus of consumer advocacy.  As Politico puts it, “the bill reflects a major shift of resources to crop insurance, which emerges as a new political powerhouse for agriculture — and what’s left of the safety net promised farmers. Midwest corn and soybean producers — riding high with good prices and a federal ethanol mandate — helped drive this change. But the result is a real and lasting split with Southern rice, peanuts and wheat growers reflected in the final vote.”
  • The food movement has to get its act together. Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group said “When conservationists stood our ground and fought, we won against the supposedly invincible crop insurance industry. Too many in the conservation community didn’t fight at all…As a consequence, conservation funding took the largest proportionate hit in this bill. For the “food movement”, the Senate farm bill has been another, rather sobering reminder that until we develop political muscle to match our passion for a sustainable food system, we’ll continue to see billions of dollars misspent on industrial agriculture.”

This is a call to action.  The House is about to take up its version in the coming weeks.  Advocates: get to work!

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