by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Farm-bill

Dec 6 2022

Once again, a Farm Bill is in the works

Everyfive years or so, Congress gets to work on a new Farm Bill.  This is a big job.

I’ve written about the Farm Bill previously.  See, for example, my opinion piece in Politico: “The Farm Bill drove me insane.”

Here are two recent publications to get you started.

The Congressional Research Service has a handy guide with summaries of its full collection of primers for the a 2018 bill.

There are 23 primers summarized in this report and organized under descriptive headings rather than by farm bill titles to facilitate accessibility for those who are not familiar with the 2018 farm bill. The concept behind these primers is to provide relevant information on key programs and policy initiatives authorized by the 2018 farm bill in a concise format that serves as a quick-reference resource for Members of Congress and congressional staff. To this end, the primers describe many of the leading programs and policies within the 2018 farm bill. They also identify some of the higher-profile policy issues that may arise as Congress engages in the process of writing a new farm bill and highlight some policy options that Congress could consider as it undertakes this task. The titles of the primers are hyperlinked for easy access.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has a statement of principles for congressional reform of the bill.

US food and agriculture policies are in need of reform. Some of the country’s largest agricultural operations receive unlimited subsidies while beginning farmers struggle to afford land. Crop prices recently rose to record highs, but challenging input costs – for everything from fuel to fertilizer – are eating away at profits. Food supply and inflation challenges continue to make headlines. Meanwhile, children go to bed hungry while one-third of food is wasted.

Comment: Here’s one reason why:

Reforming the Farm Bill is badly needed but won’t be easy for reasons of history and politics.  Getting it passed is expected to be exceptionally difficult for the same reasons.  80% or so of its spending is for SNAP—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  The rest goes largely to producers of feed for animals and fuel for automobiles.  How’s that for vested interests!

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Jun 14 2022

Do farm subsidies help alleviate poverty?

When it comes to analyses of agricultural policies, some of the most critical come from conservatives.

From the American Enterprise Institute: Farm Subsidies and the Poor (2022). The key points:

  • Despite claims to the contrary, farm subsidies do little to reduce food prices and almost nothing to alleviate rural poverty.
  • Payments of farm subsidies are roughly proportional to farm output; therefore, those who operate small farms receive minimal benefits from such programs.
  • Other US Department of Agriculture policies that provide low-income households with subsidies to buy food do increase food security and reduce poverty.

An earlier report from the American Enterprise Institute:  Agricultural subsidies aid the wealthy, not those in rural poverty (2017)

Taken together, these programs cost about $20 billion every year…Who gets all that federal money? About 70 percent of all crop insurance and other farm income safety net payments flow to 10 percent of the largest crop-producing farm businesses. This group comprises less than 100,000 farm operations, each of which on average receives more than $140,000 every year…In contrast, 10 percent of the smallest farms receive a mere pittance, on average no more than about $50 — from the federal crop insurance and safety net programs. And the bottom 80 percent, including midsize farms, receive less than 10 percent of all subsidy payments.

From the Cato Institute: Examining America’s Farm Subsidy Problem (2020)

U.S. agriculture is on track for one of the three most‐​profitable years in a half century. Adjusted for inflation since 1973, projected net farm income in 2020 will be surpassed only by 2011 and 2013 figures.  The chart and underlying data are available from the USDA here:

lincicome-15-img1.jpg
This year, farmers (on net) will derive almost 40 percent of their income directly from the U.S. government. Forty percent.
Comment: The main effect of agricultural subsidies is to encourage Big Ag to grow commodity crops in places where they should not be grown.  Clearly, ag policies need rethinking.  How about revising them to support production of real food, rather than feed for animals and fuel for cars?  How about redesigning ag policy to refocus it on health and sustainability?  These reports suggest that plenty of bipartisan support is available.  Let’s tap into it for the next farm bill.
May 25 2022

The US is soon to become a net food importer, says USDA

I was interested to see this graph in a recent report, USDA Agricultural Projections to 2031.

What this says is that agricultural imports are soon expected to be greater than agricultural exports.

Within the next year or so, the United States will be a net importer of agricultural products.

As the report puts it:

Agricultural exports are expected to grow at an annual rate averaging 0.8 percent per year from 2021 through 2031. The value of U.S. agricultural imports is projected to increase by an average annual rate of 6 percent over that same period as domestic consumer spending is expected to remain strong over the next decade combined with domestic preferences for an array of agricultural goods that continue
to exceed domestic production.

I think we need to ask what this means for long-term food security in this country.

The next Farm Bill is under discussion.  It ought to deal with the question of how US agriculture can produce more food for people rather than feed for animals and fuel to cars.

I keep remembering a meeting I went to in Washington DC years ago, where a USDA official said that he did not think Americans should waste land for growing food when it could be done so much more cheaply elsewhere.   I hope USDA thinks differently now.

Oct 6 2020

How much money is going into agricultural supports?

I’m trying to figure out how much money—over and above what’s appropriated through the farm bill—is going to Big Ag.  I wish someone would add it up for me.

Here’s what I know so far:

The USDA has given producers more than $10 billion in Coronavirus assistance.  This includes nearly $1 billion to Iowa farmers.  Lesser amounts went to producers in Nebraska, California, Texas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Overall, about half went to livestock producers.

According to the Environmental Working Group,

The largest and wealthiest U.S. farm businesses received the biggest share of almost $33 billion in payments from two subsidy programs – one created by the Trump administration to respond to the president’s trade war and the other by Congress in response to the coronavirus pandemic.  The Market Facilitation Program, or MFP, was intended to offset the perceived damage done by the administration’s trade war, which reduced many farmers’ access to lucrative Chinese markets. Payments for the 2018 and 2019 crop years were just over $23 billion – more than $8.5 billion for 2018 and $14.5 billion for 2019.

Chuck Abbott of the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) says:

With its new offer of $14 billion in coronavirus relief, the Trump administration could spend $50 billion — quadruple the cost of the auto industry bailout — in less than three years to buffer the impact of trade war and pandemic on agriculture. Farm groups welcomed the second round of coronavirus assistance while critics said it was “old-fashioned vote-buying” ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

And the largesse does not stop.  The House has proposed a $120 billion rescue fund that includes relief programs for livestock and dairy farmers and food processors, such as “$1.25 billion to assist contract growers of poultry and livestock growers who face revenue losses due to reduced placements related to COVID-19”

This money goes to Big Ag—Soybeans, Corn, Meat—mainly in mid-West Trump country.

What about food for people?  Well, we have the $4 billion Farmers to Families food boxes, although how much of that goes to farmers as opposed to distributors is unknown.

Feb 1 2019

Weekend reading: The Farm Bill

Daniel Imhoff with Christina Badaracco.  The Farm Bill: A Citizen’s Guide.  Island Press, 2019.

I wrote the Foreword for this book, a revised, updated, and even more fabulously illustrated version of the previous editions.  Here’s what I said:

In 2011, I had the bright idea of teaching a graduate course on the farm bill to food studies students at New York University.  As happens every four years or so, the bill was coming up for renewal and I thought it would be useful for the students–and me–to take a deep dive into what it was about.  I knew help was available.  Dan Imhoff had laid out the issues with great clarity in his first book about this bill in 2007.  I used it as a text.

I wrote about this experience in “The farm bill drove me insane” (Politico, March 17, 2016), which it most definitely did.  The farm bill is huge, encompassing more than a hundred programs, each with its own acronym and set of interested lobbyists.  The bill is unreadable, consisting mainly of amendments to previous bills; it is comprehensible only to lobbyists, a precious few congressional staffers, and occasional brave souls like Imhoff willing to take it on.  It costs taxpayers close to $100 billion a year; most weirdly, 80 percent of this money covers the costs of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) which is stuck in the farm bill for reasons of politics.  The farm bill represents pork-barrel, log-rolling politics at its worst.

Imhoff explains the bill as a fully rigged system gamed by Big Agriculture in collusion with government.  The public pays for this system thrice over: at the checkout counter, in subsidized insurance premiums, and for cleaning up the damage it causes to health and the environment.  Despite these scandalous costs, the mere mention of the words “farm bill” makes eyes glaze over.  Why?  This is a forest-versus-trees problem.  The bill—the forest–is far too big and complicated to grasp.  We try to understand it by looking at the programs–the trees–one by one.  Hence: insanity.

Imhoff’s approach to the forest is to focus on the overriding issues that farm bills ought to address.  A rational agricultural policy should promote an adequate food supply while protecting farmers against uncertain climate and price fluctuations.  It should promote the health of people and the environment and do so sustainably.  And it should provide incentives for people to farm and ensure a decent living for everyone involved.  But instead the farm bills encourage an industrial agricultural system incentivized to overproduce corn and soybeans to feed animals and to make ethanol for automobiles, to the great detriment of public health and environmental protection.

Nowhere are these problems more obvious than in the debates about the 2018 farm bill.  As I write this, the House is working on a bill that seems less protective of health and the environment than any previous version.  To cut costs while maintaining support of Big Agriculture, the House aims to reduce SNAP enrollments, eliminate conservation requirements, and cut out even small programs that support small farmers or promote production of fruits and vegetables—“specialty crops” in USDA parlance.

At this moment, the outcome of the 2018 bill is uncertain, but The Farm Bill: A Citizen’s Guide has a more generic purpose—to introduce readers to the big-picture issues.  Imhoff relates the history of farm bills, their origins and subsequent growth.  Imhoff describes the system: how Big Agriculture works, how food stamps ended up in the bill, what all of this means for farming and food assistance, and what kind of legislation is needed to promote a healthier food system.

We should, Imhoff insists, rework the farm bill to promote public health by supporting an agricultural system that grows food for people rather than animals and cars.  We should legislate that crops be grown sustainably so as to reduce agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, soil losses, and water pollution.  Imhoff suggests twenty-five solutions to current agricultural problems.  These should be required reading for anyone who cares about what we eat, today and in the future.  It is too late to fix the 2018 farm bill, but there is plenty of time and opportunity to make the next one a true citizens’ farm bill.  To quote Imhoff: “it’s time to question whether the industrial mega-farm model is the only way to feed a growing global population, or whether it’s even possible for such a system to survive without costly government supports and unsustainable environmental practices.”  His book should inspire better, smarter solutions.  Get busy.

–New York, May 2018

Dec 18 2018

The 2018 Farm Bill: More of the Same Old Same Old

I’m on record as calling previous Farm Bills “visionless.”

Given what’s happening in Congress, some consider it a bipartisan win?  It is, but only because, as the Washington Post put it, the outcome is bad but could have been a lot worse.

The 2018 Farm Bill remains a visionless mess.  It continues to favor Big Agriculture and mean-spiritedness over what this country badly needs: a food system explicitly aimed at promoting public health, basic support for the poor, the livelihoods of real farmers and farm workers, and environmental sustainability.

The bill takes up 807 pages, with a table of contents of 11 pages.  It will cost taxpayers $867 billion over ten years. That’s more than $1 billion per page.

How to approach the Farm Bill

Start by using the search function to look for key words.  These turn up in the Table of Contents, which gives section numbers.  Then search by section number.  Items dealing with sustainable agriculture and production of food—as opposed to feed or fuel—generally turn up in the Horticulture title.  For the rationale behind these decisions, see the Senate’s explanation.

Items of immediate note:

SNAP

Recall that more than 75% of Farm Bill expenditures go for SNAP—The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps).

The “bipartisan win”? Attempts to cut SNAP expenditures and introduce work requirements failed to pass (whew), although Congress is still working on ways to cut enrollments.

Commodity payments

The bill allows payments to more distant relatives of farm owners—cousins, nieces, nephews—a gift to the already rich.  Payments can still go to those earning more than $900,000 a year in adjusted gross income (sigh).

Organics

The bill authorizes $395 million in research funding over the next 10 years, and small amounts for data collection, offset of certification costs, and technology upgrades.  But the bill weakens restrictions on chemicals that can be used in organic production.

Hemp

The bill grants $2 million a year for support of hemp as a crop, and authorizes USDA to study the economic viability of its domestic production and sale.  It also authorizes Indian tribes (that’s the term the bill uses) to grow hemp.

Cuba

The bill allows funding for USDA trade promotion programs in Cuba.

The Managers recognize that expanding trade with Cuba not only represents an opportunity for American farmers and ranchers, but also a chance to improve engagement with the Cuban people in support of democratic ideas and human rights…The Managers expect that the Secretary will work closely with eligible trade organizations to educate them about allowable activities to improve exports to Cuba under the Market Access and Foreign Market Development Cooperator Programs.

One sweet gift: in memory of Gus Schumacher

The Managers also agree the FINI [Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive]  and Produce Prescription should be renamed the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program, in recognition of Mr. Schumacher’s role in the establishment of nutrition incentives nationwide. Mr. Schumacher was a magnificent advocate for farmers and families and saw the importance in building access and affordability through incentive programs.

Commentary

Dan Imhoff’s analysis in Civil Eats is particularly worth reading:

Still, the revised farm bill will ensure that citizens continue to pay for their food at least three times: 1) at the checkout stand; 2) in environmental cleanup and medical costs related to the consequences of industrial agriculture; and 3) as taxpayers who fund subsidies to a small group of commodity farmers deemed too big to fail.

FERN’s explainer video is also worth another look.

Documents

Oct 2 2018

The farm bill expired. Now what?

Because our dysfunctional Congress did not pass the farm bill by midnight on Sunday, the 2014 bill has expired.

What does this mean?  Basically, the USDA hasn’t decided anything yet but a lot depends on the authorization status of each program (recall: the farm bill covers hundreds of programs).

  • Programs with permanent budget authorization—SNAP and Crop Insurance, for example—keep going.
  • Programs without authorization—the 40 or so “orphans”—terminate.
  • Programs authorized by the farm bills of 1938 and 1949 that have been updated and modernized revert back to the rules for those those years—certain dairy programs are especially affected.

The Congressional Research Service has a quick summary of the implications of the non-passage of the farm bill.

As for why Congress couldn’t get this bill passed, the big barriers are SNAP and conservation.

Recall that SNAP, formerly food stamps, is in the farm bill as a result of classic logrolling in the Johnson era.  Johnson got legislators from farm states to vote for food stamps in return for votes from urban legislators for farm supports.  At the time, the food stamp program was piloted in 40 counties and 3 cities with a total of under 400,000 participants.  Its cost was a fraction of the total farm bill cost.

In 2017, SNAP had more than 42 million participants at a total cost in benefits and administration of $68 billion—nearly 80% of the total cost of the bill.

Image result for snap percent of farm bill

SNAP looks like a honey pot to legislators looking for funds to make up for the tax cuts.  They have proposed additional work requirements.

These are sure to reduce enrollments.  Mathematica Policy Research says the House farm bill (HR 2 (115)) would cause 2 million households to lose SNAP eligibility.

Conservation is another issue.  Senators write that they cannot support a farm bill that does not promote conservation.

New to the farm bill?  Want to find out more?

Jun 18 2018

Where are we on the farm bill?

Let’s start with FERN’s (Food and Agriculture Reporting Network) truly helpful, 7-minute video explaining what the Farm Bill is about.

And then there’s my overview from Politico.

With all that said, the House and Senate agriculture committees have each produced their own versions of the bill and we are waiting for the votes.  So these are preliminary, pending arguments, amendments, changes, and, eventually, reconciliation.

The big food movement issues are the SNAP and Horticulture (translation: fruit, vegetable, and organics) titles.  Browse around and see what Congress is and is not doing to link agricultural policy to health policy.

More to come when we see what gets passed.