by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Farm-policy

Dec 11 2011

The farm bill hackathon: results and a plea for more

Grist and Food and Tech Connect have excellent reports on last week’s Farm Bill Hackathon.  This event brought together farm bill experts and designers to try to produce materials that make farm bill issues accessible.

The terrific winning entry: A Clean Farm Bill of Health slideshow illustrating the contradiction between USDA dietary advice policy and that for farm supports.

I could not participate in the Hackathon but having just taught a class on the farm bill I know what I’d like to have: a complete text of the farm bill annotated to include all of the relevant information.

The 663-page 2008 farm bill is readily accessible online, but it is unreadable (by me at least).   This is because it refers to previous bills and other Acts of Congress, which in turn refer to previous bills and Acts, in some cases going back to 1933.

You don’t believe me?  Try this entirely typical section, chosen at random:

SEC. 12001. DEFINITION OF ORGANIC CROP.
Section 502(b) of the Federal Crop Insurance Act (7 U.S.C.
1502(b)) is amended—
(1) by redesignating paragraphs (7) and (8) as paragraphs
(8) and (9), respectively; and
(2) by inserting after paragraph (6) the following:
‘‘(7) ORGANIC CROP.—The term ‘organic crop’ means an
agricultural commodity that is organically produced consistent
with section 2103 of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990
(7 U.S.C. 6502).’’.

It would be so nice to have a text that gives the relevant information in one place: what the Federal Crop Insurance Act says, what paragraphs 7 and 8 are all about, and what’s in section 2103 of the 1990 Act.

Hackers: anyone want to take this on?

Dec 4 2011

Farm bill needs a major overhaul

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: What’s going on with the farm bill? Any chance for improving it?

A: I wish your question had an easier answer. The farm bill has to be American special-interest politics at its worst.

As Stacy Finz has been reporting in the main news and Business sections of The Chronicle, the failure of the recent super-deficit reduction plan also brought an end to a secret committee process for writing a new farm bill. Now Congress must follow its usual legislative procedures. The farm bill is again open for debate.

Advocacy is much in order. The farm bill is so enormous, covers so many programs, costs so much money and is so deeply irrational that no one brain – certainly not mine – can make sense of the whole thing.

It is all trees, no forest. The current bill, passed in 2008, is 663 pages of mind-numbing details about programs – hundreds of them – each with its own constituency and lobbyists.

The farm bill was designed originally to protect farmers against weather and other risks. But it grew piecemeal to include programs dealing with matters such as conservation, forestry, biofuels, organic production and international food aid.

The most controversial programs cover food commodities – corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, cotton, sugar and dairy – but lesser-known provisions support smaller industries such as honey or Hass avocados.

The elephant in the farm bill is SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps). Fully 80 percent or more of farm bill expenditures go for SNAP.

This year, SNAP costs ran about $6 billion a month, and they are rising in today’s depressed economy. In contrast, commodity subsidies cost “only” about $8 billion a year. Crop insurance adds $4.5 billion, and conservation about $5 billion. Everything else runs in the millions, not billions, mere nothings in comparison to SNAP’s $70 billion 2011 expenditures.

SNAP judgements

What, you might ask, is SNAP doing in the farm bill? Think: logrolling.

Members of Congress who represent farm states need urban votes to pass subsidies. Urban members need farm votes to protect SNAP. This deal works, and both sides like the unsavory system just as it is.

As for irrationality: At a time when preventing obesity heads the public health agenda and reducing greenhouse gases is an international priority, the farm bill firmly protects the status quo.

It promotes production of commodities, but does little to link agricultural policy to policies that promote health or environmental protection. Although the Dietary Guidelines and MyPlate strongly promote consumption of fruits and vegetables, the farm bill inconsistently considers these foods as horticulture or specialty crops that do not merit subsidies or government-supported insurance. Indeed, many farm bill provisions discourage production of fruits and vegetables.

Overall, the farm bill must be seen as an inequitable means to protect the income of the largest and richest industrial producers of food commodities. It has little to do with serious efforts to protect conservation of natural resources, support rural communities or promote sustainable farming practices that maintain soil quality and mitigate climate change. Nor does it address the real needs of low-income communities.

The current bill favors large farms over small ones, intensive rather than sustainable production methods, and some states and regions over others. It actively promotes risk-taking; the government covers the costs.

It ignores food safety. It promotes production of inefficient biofuels. It does nothing to promote sustainable farming practices in this or any other country. And because it rewards farmers for overproducing commodities, it gets the United States in trouble with international trading partners.

Worst of all, the bill is inherently undemocratic. It is so opaque that nobody in Congress or anywhere else can possibly grasp its entirety. Its size and complexity make it especially vulnerable to influence by lobbyists for special interests and by the corporations most generous with campaign contributions.

Pro and con arguments

Its defenders argue that the present system works pretty well in ensuring productivity, global competitiveness and food security. Tinkering with it, they claim, will not make much difference and could do harm.

I disagree. It needs more than tinkering. Americans need farm policy to be brought into line with health and climate-change policy, and now is our chance.

Those of us who believe that food systems should be healthier for people and the planet have been handed an opportunity to rethink farm bill programs and to make the processes for its development more democratic.

Groups such as the Environmental Working Group ( www.ewg.org) and National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (sustainableagriculture.net) have been hard at work on these issues. Join them, speak up, and get busy.

This article appeared on page G – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Nov 28 2011

On the demise of the secret farm bill

Stephen Clapp, reporting Friday in Food Chemical News (subscription required, alas), had this to say about Congress’s failure to create and pass a farm bill in secret and without debate (see previous post):

The agriculture committees will now try to achieve an unprecedented feat — passing a Farm Bill in an election year. Even in the best of times, passing a Farm Bill is like “passing a kidney stone,” quipped Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in 2008.

Nov 22 2011

The farm bill: now what?

After the budget SuperCommittee failed to reach an agreement yesterday, Rep. Frank Lucas, Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee issued a joint statement about their proposal for the farm bill:

House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders developed a bipartisan, bicameral proposal for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction that would save $23 billion.

However, the Joint Select Committee’s failure to reach a deal on an overall deficit reduction package effectively ends this effort.

We are pleased we were able to work in a bipartisan way with committee members and agriculture stakeholders to generate sound ideas to cut spending by tens of billions of dollars while maintaining key priorities to grow the country’s agriculture economy.

We will continue the process of reauthorizing the farm bill in the coming months, and will do so with the same bipartisan spirit that has historically defined the work of our committees.

With their proposal to cut $23 billion from the farm bill over 10 years (~$2.3 billion per year) blown out of the water (see yesterday’s post), the big question is what happens next.

Philip Brasher, who follows such things closely, writes in the Des Moines Register that the existing farm programs expire in two years.  The point of trying to hide the farm bill in the SuperCommittee was to protect farm subsidies from attack on the House or Senate floor:

Critics of using the supercommittee process to write farm policy saw it as an end run by the agribusiness lobby to guarantee growers a continued stream of federal money with as few strings attached as possible.

Now everything starts from scratch:

The conventional legislative process for writing a new farm would include public meetings and votes in committee and on the House and Senate floor. But that’s a long, difficult process for a major bill to navigate even in a year when little else is going on, and 2012 will be a presidential election year.

….Also up in the air is how much agriculture spending will be cut. The debt-reduction committee’s failure to reach a deal is supposed to trigger about $1 trillion in automatic cuts, including a $15 billion reduction in agricultural programs over a 10-year-period.

The agriculture committees had been crafting their farm bill to cut $23 billion, and now that the supercommittee has deadlocked corn growers lobbyist Sam Willett says that the eventual spending cut could wind up higher than that.

“The new starting point is $23 billion, not $15 billion,” he said.

Chris Clayton, writing for the Progressive Farmer, gives some of the juicier gossip about what led to this point.   He quotes  Senate Agriculture Ranking Member Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, complaining that even he had been left out of the loop:

In recent weeks, the chairs of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have worked on a farm fill proposal, largely without my input and the input of the other members of the two committees. The last proposal was so ‘secret’ that I still have not seen final legislative language and scores.

If you thought the process was nasty up until now, I’m guessing what comes next will be worse.  Lobbyists for every piece of the farm bill will be working even harder to protect their employers from budget cuts.

The big ticket items are, in order, food stamps, commodity supports (including crop insurance), and conservation.  The fights will not be pretty, especially in a Congress that seems to care much more about who’s in power than about creating a healthy, sustainable agricultural system.

Additions, November 23: The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NASC) has produced two analyses of the situation with the farm bill.  Part One reviews what has just happened and what it may mean (short answer: up in the air).  Part Two provides NASC’s analysis of the leaked bill proposed by the secret committee (the actual proposal has not yet been released).

Nov 21 2011

Budget talks fail: what’s happening with the farm bill?

As of this morning, it looks like the SuperCommittee process has failed.  This committee was supposed to recommend specific budget cuts by tonight.  If it fails, automatic budget cuts, half to the military, go into effect in January 2013—after the 2012 election.

What does this mean for the farm bill?

The chairs and vice-chairs of the House and Senate agriculture committee have been meeting in secret—from the rest of the agriculture committee members as well as from the public—to recommend how to cut $23 billion from agriculture appropriations.

On Friday, the Environmental Working Group obtained a leaked copy of the secret recommendations.

These recommendations, rumored to be not quite final, were to go to the SuperCommittee today.  Now what?

I’m guessing the farm bill is up for grabs and will now have to go through the usual legislative processes.  This could be good or bad, depending on the politics.

In the meantime, I counted 97 recommendations in the secret committee’s report.  A few of the most interesting:

Commodities

  • Eliminate direct payments, counter-cyclical payments, average crop revenue election, and supplemental revenue assistance payments to create $15 billion in savings.
  • Expand crop insurance for “underserved” crops, including fruits and vegetables.
  • Create a special program to protect cotton producers.
  • Protect commodity producers against both price and yield losses.
  • Restrict benefits to farmers who make less than $950,000 per year (adjusted gross), or twice that for couples.
  • Set payment limits of $105,000 per producer, or twice that for couples.
  • Do something complicated with dairy by replacing two programs with two others.

Conservation

  • Cut the budget by an unspecified amount (continuing a long tradition of cutting conservation).
  • Reduce reserve acres from 32 million to 25 million over 10 years.

Nutrition

  • Cut SNAP (food stamp) benefits by about $4 billion a year, by eliminating automatic enrollment for anyone who gets energy benefits.
  • Require retailers to stock more fruits and vegetables.
  • Give USDA the authority to require documented need for states to allow SNAP benefits to be used in restaurants by the disabled and homeless.
  • Give USDA $5 million per year to prevent trafficking of benefits.
  • Require USDA to set rules to prevent lottery winners from getting SNAP benefits (what is this about?).
  • Grant $10 million to encourage whole grains in school meals.
  • Grant $20 million a year for incentives for SNAP recipients to buy fruits and vegetables.

“Specialty” crops (translation: fruits and vegetables)

  • Fund promotion program for farmers’ markets at $20 million a year
  • Give USDA $5 million to collect data on organics
  • Provide $61 million a year for programs to prevent agricultural pests
  • Give $70 million a year for grants to states to promote specialty crops
  • Allot $15 million a year to run the National Organic Program
  • Provide $40 million a year for specialty crop research.
  • Provide up to 75% of the cost of organic certification (maximum $750).

As in the past, SNAP takes up about 80% of the total farm bill budget, with the remainder going mainly to commodity support and insurance programs.

As always, large agricultural producers get most of the support money—$ billions—but this plan throws a handful of small benefits ($ millions) to help fruit-and-vegetable growers.

How any of this might work in practice is unclear, as is what happens next.  A whole new opportunity for lobbying, perhaps.  Stay tuned.

Sep 23 2011

Weekend reading: food politics reports

The U.S. Public Interest Group (USPIRG) has a new report out on the effects of farm subsidies on obesity: Apples to Twinkies: Comparing Federal Subsidies of Fresh Produce and Junk Food.  If you want people to eat more fruits and vegetables and less junk food, fixing the subsidy patterns might be a good place to begin.

New England Complex Systems Institute (whatever that might be) has an interesting explanation of the recent rise in world food prices: The Food Crises: A Quantitative Model of Food Prices Including Speculators and Ethanol Conversion.
The authors’ explanation: commodity speculation and growing corn for ethanol fully account for the rise in prices.  The remedy seems obvious, no?

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has just funded a report on the soft drink industry from the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN), a project of Public Health Law & Policy (PHLP): Breaking Down the Chain: A Guide to the Soft Drink Industry.  This is about the industry itself, but also what it is doing to market its products here, there, and everywhere.  This is required reading for anyone interested in public health measures to reduce consumption of sugary drinks.

Jul 6 2011

How to pay for a better food system?

At TPMDC, Brian Beutler explains why the U.S. does not have enough money to pay for food assistance programs, safety regulation, better school food, or support for sustainable agriculture.

 

Apr 8 2011

How to get involved: the Farm Bill

When giving talks here and there, I am invariably asked how listeners can get involved in social and political action on food issues.

From the standpoint of personal responsibility, it’s easy: Vote with your fork!  Buy and eat according to your principles to the extent that you can.

But participating in democratic processes is also part of personal responsibility, and here is where things get more complicated.  Over the next week or so, I am going to post suggestions about how to get involved in a variety of food issues, starting with work on the 2012 Farm Bill, the legislation that governs everything having to do with agricultural policy in the United States—subsidies, water rights, organics, food assistance programs, and anything else you can think of.

I only am familiar with a few organizations gearing up to work on this bill:

If you know of others, please tell me about them in a comment.

Also: please mention groups advocating for better school food, limits on food marketing to children, and other food policy issues—groups that beginners might want to join.

Thanks!

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