by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Farm-policy

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.

Apr 16 2012

The exceedingly strange world of federal crop insurance subsidies

According to an account in last week’s New York Times, the federal government could save about $1 billion a year by reducing the subsidies it pays to large farmers to cover much of the cost of their crop insurance.  Crop insurance subsidies are expected to cost $39 billion from 2012 to 2016, or about $7.8 billion a year.

The Times based this statement on a new report from the Government Accountability Office.  This report explains that the billion-a-year savings would occur if the government applied the same limits to subsidies for crop insurance as it applies to other farm support programs.

The report raised the prospect of the government’s capping the amount that farmers receive at $40,000 a year, much as the government caps payments in other farm programs. Any move to limit the subsidy, however, is likely to be opposed by rural lawmakers, who say the program provides a safety net for agriculture.

Get this:

Under the federal crop insurance program, farmers can buy insurance policies that cover poor yields, declines in prices or both. The insurance is obtained through private companies, but the federal government pays about 62 percent of the premiums, plus administrative expenses.

And that’s not all.  The Environmental Working Group says many of the crop insurers are foreign companies.

Twenty insurance companies in Bermuda, Japan, Switzerland, Australia, Canada and the U.S. were paid $7.1 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds from 2007 to 2011 to sell American farmers crop insurance policies, an Environmental Working Group analysis shows. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency paid these companies for administrative and operating expenses for the federally subsidized crop insurance program.

We talked about crop insurance subsidies in the class on the farm bill that I taught at NYU last fall.   My class thought all of us should immediately go into the crop insurance business.  The government pays most of the premiums and administrative expenses and also covers most of the risk.  This is a really good deal for Big Ag and the lucky few insurance companies.

You find this difficult to believe?  Take a look at two of the readings for the course:

Shields DA.  Federal crop insurance: background and issues.  Congressional Research Service, December 13, 2010.

Insurance policies are sold and completely serviced through 16 approved private insurance companies. Independent insurance agents are paid sales commissions by the companies. The insurance companies’ losses are reinsured by USDA, and their administrative and operating costs are reimbursed by the federal government.

Smith VH.  Premium payments: why crop insurance costs too much.  American Enterprise Institute, 2011.

Since 2007, government subsidies for crop insurance have averaged about $5.6 billion per year, representing over one-third of total expenditures on income transfers and other government payments for programs targeted directly to farmers.

However, about 58 percent of those expenditures have ended up in the hands of agricultural insurance companies and agricultural insurance agents.

In fact, since 2005, on average, the agricultural insurance industry has received $1.44 for every dollar farmers have received in crop insurance subsidies.

No wonder Big Ag wants crop insurance subsidies continued.

Will the 2012 farm bill fix this?  I’m not optimistic but will stay tuned.

Jan 3 2012

Musing about organics leads me to the Farm Bill

Sales of organic foods continue to increase at a faster pace than sales of conventional foods.  This alone makes people suspicious of the organic enterprise.

Another reason is confusion about what organic production methods are, exactly.  If you are part of the food movement, you probably want your foods to be organic, local, seasonal, and sustainable.  You might also want them produced by farm workers who have decent wages and living conditions.

Unfortunately, these things do not necessarily go together.

  • Organic means crops grown without artificial pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs, irradiation, or sewage sludge, and animals raised without hormones or antibiotics.  Certified Organic methods follow specific rules established by USDA.
  • Local means foods grown or raised within a given radius that can range from a few to hundreds of miles (you have to ask).
  • Seasonal refers to food plants eaten when they are ripe (and not preserved or transported from where they were grown).
  • Sustainable means—at least by some definitions—that the nutrients removed from the soil by growing plants are replenished without artificial inputs.

That these are different is illustrated by a recent article in the New York Times about industrial organic production in Mexico.  The story makes it clear that organics do not have to be local, seasonal, sustainable, or produced by well paid workers.

While the original organic ideal was to eat only local, seasonal produce, shoppers who buy their organics at supermarkets, from Whole Foods to Walmart, expect to find tomatoes in December and are very sensitive to price. Both factors stoke the demand for imports.

Few areas in the United States can farm organic produce in the winter without resorting to energy-guzzling hothouses. In addition, American labor costs are high. Day laborers who come to pick tomatoes in this part of Baja make about $10 a day, nearly twice the local minimum wage. Tomato pickers in Florida may earn $80 a day in high season.

The cost issues are critical.  Dairy farms in general, and organic dairy farms in particular, are entirely dependent on the cost of feed for their animals, and the cost of organic feed has become almost prohibitively expensive.  This has caused organic dairy producers to cut back on production or go out of business.  As another New York Times article explains,

The main reason for the shortage is that the cost of organic grain and hay to feed cows has gone up sharply while the price that farmers receive for their milk has not.

While the shortage may be frustrating for consumers, it reveals a bitter truth for organic dairy farmers, who say they simply need to be paid more for their milk.

Why is the price of feed rising?  Simple answer: because 40% of feed corn grown in the United States is being used to produce biofuels.

Why do farmers grow corn for biofuels?  Because the government gives them tax credits and other subsidies to do so.

But in a small step in the right direction, the ethanol tax credit program was allowed to expire last week,”ending an era in which the federal government provided more than $20 billion in subsidies for use of the product.”

One person quoted in the article connected the dots:

Production of ethanol, with its use of pesticides and fertilizer and heavy industrial machinery, causes soil erosion and air and water pollution. And it means that less land is available for growing food, so food prices go up.

Organics do not exist in isolation.  Their production is connected to every other aspect of the food system.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a food system that promoted organic, local, seasonal, sustainable agriculture and paid farm workers a living wage?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the 2012 Farm Bill supported that kind of a food system if not instead of than at least along side of the one we have now?

I will be watching to see what Congress does with the Farm Bill.  Stay tuned.

Page 4 of 8« First...23456...Last »