by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Farm-policy

Apr 13 2018

Weekend reading: The Farm Bill

It will take more than a weekend to figure out what is actually in this 641-page monster.

Its table of contents alone is 13 pages.

The House produced a section-by-section summary 

It also produced a quick overview of the top-ten highlights.

This draft calls for an expenditure of about $865 billion over 10 years.

Lots of groups have lots to say about this bill.

My favorite quote comes from Mike Conaway, chair of the House Agriculture Committee:

Except for the SNAP portion, this is a bipartisan bill.

Some exception.

The farm bill always presents a forest vs. trees problem.  It is an enormous collection of trees.

I found this one especially interesting: Sec. 4003. Gus Schumacher food insecurity nutrition incentive program.

If I understand it correctly, this is to fund pilot projects to promote fruit and vegetable consumption in low-income communities.  If it survives, it might be a fitting tribute to Gus, who died in 2017 after a long career promoting agriculture as a means to improve public health.

Happy reading.  No telling what will happen to this, but it will be interesting to watch.  Stay tuned.

 

Feb 26 2018

U.S. Agriculture at a glance: USDA report

USDA and the National Agricultural Statistics Service have just published “Farms and Land in Farms: 2017 Summary.”

Here’s the bottom line:

Earl Butz, USDA Secretary under presidents Nixon and Ford, was infamous for, among other things, telling farmers to “get big or get out.”  And so it came to pass….

Government agricultural policies have a lot to do with this, no?

Feb 23 2018

Weekend reading: Effects of Industrial agriculture on health and the environment

I reviewed an earlier draft of this report, and was impressed by its comprehensiveness and attention to detail.  If you are interested in understanding how our current agricultural system came about, what problems it causes, and what to do about them, this report is an excellent place to start.

It’s “new vision for farm and food policy” calls for:

  • An end to subsidies that encourage farm specialization, intensification, and overproduction
  • Practices that reduce soil loss and water pollution
  • Ending the use of medically important antibiotics
  • Aligning agricultural policy with health policy

Its conclusion:

It is time for a change in our agricultural policies and priorities, away from a near absolute emphasis on maximizing production and toward ameliorating the problems caused by the intensification and specialization of farming. Developing a more balanced agricultural system will require extensive changes throughout our food production system. Those reforms will threaten established interests and reshape farming in the U.S., but also create opportunities to build more vibrant rural communities. Accepting those challenges is essential because the
threats generated by current farming practices cannot be ignored any longer.

Jan 25 2018

USDA Secretary issues guiding principles for farm bill

Secretary Sonny Perdue has released his blueprint for the 2018 farm bill.

Its goal is to “improve services while reducing regulatory burdens on USDA customers” [translation: Big Ag].

USDA, he says, supports legislation that will do a great many things for farm production, conservation, trade, food and nutrition services, marketing, food safety, research and education, and natural resources.

There are a lot of words here and it’s hard to know what they mean, even reading between the lines.

For example, here are USDA’s principles for SNAP (food stamps), with my [translations and questions]:

• Harness America’s agricultural abundance to support nutrition assistance for those truly in need.  [This sounds like a food distribution program, but I’m wondering how “truly in need” will be defined.]
• Support work as the pathway to self-sufficiency, well-being, and economic mobility for individuals and families receiving supplemental nutrition assistance.  [This means work requirements, but where will the jobs come from?]
• Strengthen the integrity and efficiency of food and nutrition programs to better serve our participants and protect American taxpayers by reducing waste, fraud and abuse through shared data, innovation, and technology modernization. [This means spending hundreds of millions a year on fraud prevention].
• Encourage state and local innovations in training, case management, and program design that promote self-sufficiency and achieve long-term, stability in employment.  [The jobs?]
• Assure the scientific integrity of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans process through greater transparency and reliance on the most robust body of scientific evidence.  [Weren’t they always based on the available science?  This sounds like a way to prevent the guidelines from suggesting eating less of junk foods].
• Support nutrition policies and programs that are science based and data driven with clear and measurable outcomes for policies and programs. [This one translates to you can’t set nutrition policies unless you can demonstrate beneficial outcomes—fine in theory, but policy-blocking in practice].

Reading through the other sections is equally non-reassuring.  Where is a vision for a farm bill that promotes health, sustainable agriculture, and small or mid-size farms, protects farm workers, and reduces greenhouse gases?

Maybe the next one?

Jan 17 2018

Crop insurance, like much else these days, goes to the rich

Crop insurance is the big issue in the forthcoming farm bill.  The American Enterprise Institute doesn’t like it much, and for good reason.  On the theory that one picture is worth a thousand words, here’s why

The blue bars are the percentages of total farm bill subsidies.  The yellow bars are subsidies per acre.  If you thought that subsidies helped small or medium farms, think again.

Whether you agree with the AEI or not, its American Boondoggle reports are always worth reading for their remarkably clear explanation of the hugely complicated farm bill issues.

This one, for example, tells you everything you need to know about how crop insurance really works—and at taxpayer expense.

Nov 29 2017

Good news about farming!

How about some good news for a change?

I.  Politico reports on on a new report, Feeding the Economy, on the importance of agriculture for the US economy (you can search the site for your own state and congressional district).

The findings are impressive:

As Politico puts it, “more than a fifth of the U.S. economy and a quarter of American jobs are either directly or indirectly tied to the food and agriculture sectors.”

That’s more than 43 million jobs and $1.9 trillion in wages, and $894 billion in taxes.  That’s $6.7 trillion for the impact..

Who paid for the study?  22 food and agriculture groups, including the Corn Refiners Association, the American Bakers Association and the United Fresh Produce Association.

II.  The Washington Post writes:

For only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers under 35 years old is increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture. Sixty-nine percent of the surveyed young farmers had college degrees — significantly higher than the general population.

The implications for public policy are obvious: promote farming opportunities for young people.

III.  Here’s what The National Young Farmers Coalition says in its new report:

Its agenda:

Now, to make that happen…

Nov 24 2017

Farm bill #5: EWG, NASC, and other resources

I.  The Environmental Working Group

It just released its farm subsidy database for 2015 and 2016.

The new information reflects the demands of the 2014 farm bill.

The findings:

  • $32.2 billion is the total cost of federal crop insurance, disaster, and conservation programs.
  • $14.5 billion of this went mainly to growers of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice.
  • $12 billion went to crop insurance subsidies.
  • $3.7 billion went for conservation.
  • $2 billion went to disaster assistance.
  • Deline Farms Partnership was the #1 recipient with $4 million in commodity subsidies.
  • The Navajo Agricultural Products Industry was #2 with $2.3 million.

The website is interactive.  You can click on states and counties.

Tomkins County, New York, where Ithaca is, got $25 million in federal subsidies.

It’s fun. Check it out.

EWG also released it’s Double-Dipping report on how taxpayers are subsidizing farmers twice for crop losses.

II. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC)

It organized dozens of farm organizations to sign a letter calling for greater investment in agriculture through the farm bill education-and-research title.

It also released An Agenda for the 2018 Farm Bill.  This focuses on investing in:

  • Beginning farmers and ranchers
  • Conservation
  • Regional food economies
  • Plant research
  • Risk management

III.  Representative Chellie Pingree (Dem-Maine) is also working on farm bill issues.  

Her particular focus is the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act:

  • Expands access to farmland
  • Ensures equitable access to financial capital and federal crop insurance
  • Encourages commitment to conservation and stewardship

Many people are working on farm bill reform.  It needs it.

Sep 20 2017

Crop insurance: some thoughts

When I taught a course on the farm bill some years ago, students were stunned by how crop insurance works.  They wondered how they could break into that business.

Sixteen insurance companies write policies for farmers.  The federal government pays 62% of the premiums to the tune of about $8 billion per year.  Farmers pay 38%.

The lucky insurance companies make out like bandits under this system—an average rate of return of 24.8%.  The Government Accountability Office, no surprise, thinks this exceeds market rates and needs to be readjusted.

Farmers need crop insurance, no question.

But in the wake of Hurricane Irma, we learned that farmers who grow fruits, vegetables, and nuts—in USDA jargon, “specialty crops”—feel that they cannot afford it.

Historically, the program has covered corn, soybean, and other large-scale commodities—about 85% of such acres are covered.

But crop insurance now covers 73% of fruit and tree nut acreage but only 32% percent of vegetable crops, accounting for 8% of premiums.

According to a Risk Management report on specialty crops, insurance covers virtually all of Florida’s sugarcane, cotton, and citrus, but only about half of fresh tomatoes, sweet corn, and bell peppers, and none of fresh beans.

Obviously, plenty is wrong with the crop insurance program.  Will the 2018 farm bill do anything to fix it?

According to Politico Pro Agriculture, Secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters that the he favors restructuring the program but that the crop insurance program should not promise farmers profitability.

What about profitability for the crop insurers?  The GAO recommends reducing this industry’s profits to market rates.  That should leave plenty of money to help specialty crop farmers.