by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Farm-policy

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!

Jun 21 2012

The Senate roll-call votes on farm bill amendments

In the vote-a-rama of the last couple of days, the Senate passed these farm bill amendments with roll-call votes (other amendments were passed or rejected by voice votes):

  • No. 2439; To limit the amount of premium subsidy provided by the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation on behalf of any person or legal entity with an average adjusted gross income in excess of $750,000 with a delayed application of the limitation until completion of a study on the effects of the limitation.
  • No. 2438; To establish highly erodible land and wetland conservation compliance requirements for the Federal crop insurance program.
  • No. 2363 As Modified; To ensure that extras in film and television who bring personal, common domesticated household pets do not face unnecessary regulations and to prohibit attendance at an animal fighting venture.
  • No. 2295; To increase the amounts authorized to be appropriated for the designation of treatment areas.
  •  No. 2454; To prohibit assistance to North Korea under title II of the Food for Peace Act unless the President issues a national interest waiver.
  •  No. 2293; To limit subsidies for millionaires.
  • No. 2382; To require the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation to provide crop insurance for organic crops under similar terms and conditions to crop insurance provided for other crops.
  • No. 2309; To require a study into the feasibility of an insurance product that covers food safety recalls. No. 2238; To require more frequent dairy reporting.
  • No. 2370; To encourage the purchase of pulse crop products for school meals programs.
  • No. 2445; To strengthen rural communities and foster the next generation of farmers and ranchers.
  • No. 2167; To provide payment limitations for marketing loan gains and loan deficiency payments.
  • No. 2190 As Modified; To require Federal milk marketing order reform.

I won’t go through all of the rejected amendments, but did notice this one:

  • No. 2289; To reduce funding for the market access program and to prohibit the use of funds for reality television shows, wine tastings, animal spa products, and cat or dog food.

Now why would the Senate vote to retain market access program funds for such things?   Taxpayer support of promotion of cat and dog food?  How did we miss that one when when my co-author and I were writing Feed Your Pet Right, our analysis of the pet food industry.

And wine tastings, anyone?

But to get to a more important rejection: Senator Gillibrand’s amendment to protect SNAP from budget cuts:

  • No. 2156 As Modified; To strike a reduction in the supplemental nutrition assistance program and increase funding for the fresh fruit and vegetable program, with an offset that limits crop insurance reimbursements to providers.

The rejection of this proposal gets us into issues related to the cozy arrangement between anti-hunger advocates and pro-commodity advocates to vote for each other’s funding (translation: logrolling).   Does this rejection mean that the arrangement is breaking down under budget-cutting pressures?  Or does it simply reflect an agreement that a reduction in SNAP is the quid pro quo for removing direct payments and setting some caps on commodity benefits?

Senator Ron Johnson (Rep-Wisconsin) has an interesting take on the logrolling questions.  He filed a motion to send the farm bill back to committee to divide it into two separate bills, one for food assistance and the other for farm supports.

When Congress debates legislation to spend nearly $1 trillion, we need to be honest with the American people about what we’re doing. This isn’t a farm bill. It’s a welfare bill…We should be clear about how much we are spending and why we are spending it – and we ought to give Senators the opportunity for a straight up or down vote on two different proposals that have little in common.

…If Senators want to spend $800 billion on Food Stamps, or nearly $200 billion on farm programs, let them say so with a clean vote – rather than combining them into an all-or-nothing package that passes with a minimum of debate and scrutiny.

Want to take bets on how far his motion gets? [Not far: the Senate rejected the motion this morning, 59 to 40]

The Senate is voting on more amendments today.  More to come.

Jun 19 2012

Senators grapple with the farm bill this week

This is the week to pay close attention to what’s happening with the farm bill.  The senate has agreed to begin voting this afternoon on 73 amendments.*

As the Washington Post puts it, this week’s “vote-o-rama” might actually end up passing a five-year bill that would

cost $969 billion over the next decade and includes $23.6 billion in proposed cuts, making it a slimmed-down version of legislation that historically served as one of the main opportunities for members of Congress to deliver pork-barrel spending to their constituents.

Roll Call explains the politics behind the Senate’s plan.

Although final Senate approval is far from guaranteed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced a 73-amendment agreement just before 8:30 p.m., hours after Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and ranking member Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) could be seen and heard wrangling with rank-and-file Members in the chamber.

The farm bill is the perfect embodiment of stakeholder politics in action.  The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), which has been tracking farm bill events closely, says that

On Thursday, NSAC joined over 90 organizations in a letter supporting passage of the amendment to re-link soil and wetland conservation requirements to crop insurnace premium subsidies, the largest farm subsidy in the new farm bill. Earlier, at the beginning of the week, NSAC also joined over 500 organizations on a letter opposing any farm bill that increased the size of the cuts to farm conservation programs beyond the ten percent cut in the pending Senate bill. A sign-on letter in support of beginning, minority, and veteran farmer amendments will be delivered Monday.

The San Francisco Chronicle points out that California produce growers like the farm bill pretty much as it is.  In 2008, it provided them with some support.  They are opposed to caps on crop insurance subsidies favored by food movement advocates.

The article quotes Kari Hamerschlag, an analyst with the Environmental Working Group:

just 600 farmers in California, or 2 percent, receive 33 percent of the crop insurance subsidies going to the state, an average of $98,000 apiece. Capping the subsidies at $40,000 per farm would save $33 million in California alone…That would be enough…to provide the fresh fruit and vegetable snack program for poor children to 1,178 schools, or quadruple the money for local and regional food programs in the state, or increase a conservation incentive program by half.

As a nation we have to decide, is it more import to subsidize high profits for crop insurance companies, or healthy food for kids?

It looks like we will get the answer to this question from the Senate this week.  Stay tuned.

* Addition:  If you need a scorecard, I just got sent the farm bill primer listing the amendments.

Jun 14 2012

Would you believe 80 (no, >300!) amendments to the farm bill?

Senators, 31 of them, have introduced 80 amendments to the Senate version of the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012—the farm bill.

Obamafoodorama provides a handy list of the amendments.  The Senate is working through them right now.

Here are a few selections from that list, just to give you a feel for the level of detail involved in this bill.

  • Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn: Make co-ops and other entities that get a business and industry direct or guaranteed loan for a wind energy project ineligible for other federal benefits
  • Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska: Require the Agricultural Research Service to operate at least one facility in each state
  • Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash: Encourage the purchase of pulse crop products for school meals
  • Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md: Establish conservation compliance for federal crop insurance
    Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla:
    Limit crop insurance premium subsidies to farmers with an average adjusted gross income of $750,000. (With Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.)
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.: Strike the reduction in the food stamp program and increase funding for the fresh fruit and vegetable program through cuts to crop insurance
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.: Replace the food stamp program with a block grant [The Senate voted yesterday to defeat this one]
  • Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa: Increase funding for the beginning farmer and rancher program
  • Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev:  Prohibit members of Congress from participating in farm programs.
  • Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis: Allow the fresh fruit and vegetable program to include dried, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, as well as fresh
  • Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass: Extend eligibility for certain emergency loans to commercial fishermen
  • Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.: Require a study on the impact of sugar-sweetened beverages on obesity.
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.: Increase criminal penalties for certain knowing and intentional violations relating to food that is misbranded or adulterated
  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz: Repeal the sugar program [The Senate voted yesterday to defeat this one]
  • Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky: Authorize the interstate shipment of unpasteurized milk
  • Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.: Promote maple syrup research and production
  • Sen. John Thune, R-S.D.: Prohibit the Labor secretary from finalizing a proposed rule related to child labor on farms
  • Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa: Eliminate the farmers market and local food promotion program
  • Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore: Amend the Controlled Substances Act to exclude industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana; Establish a federal task force on childhood obesity; Require the Agriculture secretary to carry out pilot projects to improve nutrition under the food stamp program.

Now is the time to let your Senators know where you stand on these issues.  The farm bill still has a long way to go—the House hasn’t taken it up yet—but what the Senate decides will surely be influential.  Get busy!

Update, 4:00 p.m.:  Food Chemical News report that 80 is a gross underestimation of the number of amendments; the number since yesterday has neared or exceeded 300.

Update, 4:15 p.m.: Here’s a link to the Sunlight Foundation’s report on the money behind the farm bill.  About sugar, it says:

Sugar. On Wednesday, big sugar beat back an attempt by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., to eliminate a decades-old sugar price support program. The Senate voted 50 to 46 to table her amendment.

Sugar interests such as American Crystal Sugar and Flo-Sun Inc. are among the biggest campaign contributors in the agribusiness sector, giving to Democrats and Republicans alike.

The sugar industry gains strength from having two geographic strongholds–the South, where sugar cane is grown, and the mid-west, the source of sugar beets.

However, sugar’s opponents, the interests that buy sugar for their products, is also quite formidable. The Coalition for Sugar Reform, which supported the Shaheen amendment, include such heavyweights as the American Beverage Association, the Food Marketing Institute, and the Snack Food Association, which in turn have powerful corporate membership.

Jun 6 2012

What’s at stake in the farm bill?

Whoever at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is doing the analysis and summaries of the farm bill deserves much praise for performing a major public service.

The Senate version of the bill under discussion right now is 1009 pages long and estimated to cost taxpayers $969 billion over the next ten years, of which nearly 80% goes for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps).

The NSAC account deals with the big issues: the lack of conservation requirements attached to taxpayer subsidies for crop insurance, the enormous complexity of the bill, and the lack of an overriding vision of what the farm bill should do. 

In one sense, the Senate bill reflects not so much a new farm policy as a new, confusing, and costly set of options targeted at different segments of commodity agriculture…the emerging bill is a bundle of contradictions with respect to subsidy caps and conservation requirements…. This results from, among other things, the complete lack of clearly identified policy goals.…All of this would be complicated enough by itself, but as the headlines and hearings of the past several weeks amply demonstrate, before this farm bill is finished, it will very likely get more complicated still.

As I have said repeatedly, the farm bill is a vast collection of specific programs aimed at specific constituencies, each with its own lobbyists and congressional supporters.  It is so big and covers so many issues that nobody in Congress can possibly be expected to understand more than a tiny fraction of what is involved.  Hence: lobbyists.

I will leave consideration of the big issues to the NSAC analysts, and just focus on a few very small ones that caught my eye as an example of the absurdity of conducting farm policy through this mechanism.  The current Senate proposal:

Adds popcorn to covered commodities: Only some crops are eligible for federal support.  These include wheat, corn, grain sorghum,barley, oats, long grain rice, medium grain rice,pulse crops, soybeans, other oilseeds, and peanuts.  Now: “The Secretary shall study the feasibility of including popcorn as a covered commodity by 2014.”

Specifies use of fortified foods in international food aid: “adjust products and formulations,including potential introduction of new fortificants and products, as necessary to cost ffectively meet nutrient needs of target populations, to test prototypes;to adopt new specifications or improve existing specifications for micronutrient fortified food aid products.”

Calls for a report on honey: “Not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary, in consultation with affected stakeholders, shall submit to the Commissioner of Food and Drugs a report describing how an appropriate Federal standard for the identity of honey would promotes honesty and fair dealing and would be in the interest of consumers, the honey industry, and United States agriculture.

Removes Canada geese from within five miles of airports, especially JFK: “by the first subsequent molting period for Canada geese that occurs after the date of enactment of this Act, publish a management plan that provides for the removal, by not later than 1 year after the date of publication, of all Canada geese residing on the applicable land.”

On the brighter side, it also:

Expands farmers’ market promotion to include local food: “domestic farmers’ markets, roadside stands, community-supported agriculture programs, agritourism activities, and other direct producer-to-consumer market opportunities; and local and regional food enterprises that are not direct producer-to-consumer markets but process, distribute, aggregate, store,and market locally or regionally produced food products.”

NASC’s assessment:

that may be, as the saying goes, the best that can be accomplished under current circumstances.  If so, one would hope that if nothing else, it would spur a major re-evaluation and thorough overhaul between now and the next farm bill to create something that might begin to approximate a goal-driven, fairer, less costly, more rationale, less environmentally damaging, more economic opportunity-creating, and less market distorting approach then where it appears the current process will end up. 

Hey—we all can dream.

May 22 2012

Get your kids interested in farming: here’s how?


This appeared in my e-mail.  I tried to find out where it came from, but no luck.  Can anyone tell me its source?

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.

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