by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Farm-policy

May 14 2013

Attention policy wonks! It’s farm bill time again.

The Senate and House released their versions of the farm bill last week.  By size (1102 v. 576 pages) and extent of budget cuts ($23 billion v. $40 billion), these are  incompatible. I’m guessing that getting them passed and reconciled will require major compromises—hard to imagine for this dysfunctional Congress.

The Congressional Budget Office, according to the Hagstrom Report, estimates that the Senate bill will cost $955 billion from 2014 to 2023, and the House bill will cost $940 billion—but roughly $100 billion a year for the next 10 years.   Much is at stake.

The Senate Ag Committee is discussing its bill today (click here for details).  The House Ag Committee does this on Wednesday (click here).

To get up to speed, here are the relevant documents on the Senate side:

And here are the parallel documents on the House side:

As a reminder of what the farm bill is all about, see my previous posts on the subject from November 14 and November 26 2012.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), ever optimistic, has produced a report, The Healthy Farm: A Vision for U.S. Agriculture, identifying ways that the farm bill could—if there were any political will—support an agricultural system focused on producing abundant, affordable, and healthy food and on protecting the environment (also see its interactive healthy farm and take action sites).

During the coming days, I’ll take a stab at interpreting key pieces of the proposed bills.  Stay tuned.

2:00 p.m. addition: Jerry Hagstrom says the Senate Agriculture Committee has approved the farm bill by a vote of 15 to 5. Senators Roberts, McConnell, Johanns, Thune and Gillibrand voted no.  OK.  Now let’s see what the House does tomorrow.

Addition #2: Follow the amendments on Senate and House.


Apr 29 2013

Happy 5th Birthday: Pew Commission

Five years ago today, The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released its report: Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.

I was a member of the commission, put together by Pew  Charitable Trusts in partnership with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and chaired by John Carlin, a former governor of Kansas.

The commission met for two years to investigate the effects of the current system of intensive animal production on public health, the environment, the communities housing confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and on the welfare of farm animals.

As a member, I had the opportunity to visit huge dairy farms, feedlots, pig farms, and facilities housing 1.2 million chickens.  This was, to say the least, quite an education.

The big issues? Overuse of antibiotics and the shocking environmental impact of vast amounts of animal waste.

The big surprise? Plenty of adequate laws exist to protect the environment and communities; they just aren’t being enforced.

A New York Times editorial noted that farm policies have turned “animal husbandry…into animal abuse,” and need rethinking and revision.

Indeed they did and do. 

As with all such reports, this one made too many recommendations but the most important ones had to do with the inappropriate use of antibiotics in farm animal production:

Restrict the use of antimicrobials in food animal production to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to medically important antibiotics.

Another key recommendation:

Fully enforce current federal and state environmental exposure regulations and legislation, and increase monitoring  of the possible public health effects of IFAP [industrial farm animal production] on people who live and work in or near these operations.

And my sentimental favorite:

Create a Food Safety Administration that combines the food inspection and safety responsibilities of the federal government, USDA, FDA, EPA, and other federal agencies into one agency to improve the safety of the US food supply.

What good do reports like this do?

The report established a strong research basis for the need for policies to clean up industrial farm animal production and better protect the health and welfare of everyone and everything involved: workers, communities, the environment, and the animals themselves.

This is a good time to take another look at the report and consider how its basic—and absolutely necessary—recommendations can be put in place, and the sooner the better.

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?

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