by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Farm-policy

Sep 22 2012

The Farm Bill: R.I.P.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has this to say about our dysfunctional Congress’s leaving town without passing the 2012 Farm Bill:

In a year that has brought its share of challenges to America’s farmers and ranchers, the House Republicans have added new uncertainty for rural America.

Unfortunately, House Republicans left Washington without passing comprehensive, multi-year food, farm and jobs legislation, leaving thousands of farming families exposed.

U.S. agriculture is fighting to maintain the tremendous momentum it has built over the past three years, but with natural disasters and other external forces threatening livelihoods of our farmers and ranchers, certainty is more important than ever.

Americans deserve a food, farm and jobs bill that reforms the safety net for producers in times of need, promotes the bio-based economy, conserves our natural resources, strengthens rural communities, promotes job growth in rural America, and supports food assistance to low-income families. Without the certainty of a multi-year bill, rural communities are being asked to shoulder undue burdens.

Aug 17 2012

To ponder over the weekend: What to do about corn and biofuels

Think about this over the weekend.

Among the other consequences of the current drought—along with the ruin of this year’s corn crop—is a complicated political battle over who gets the corn.

The players:

  • Corn producers: Want high prices.  Don’t care whether meat or ethanol producers get the corn.  Note: Many own their own ethanol refineries.
  • Meat producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Do not want corn grown for ethanol.  Want the ethanol quota waived.
  • Ethanol producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Want to keep the quota.
  • International aid agencies: Want corn to be grown for food and feed, not fuel.  Want the ethanol quota waived.

The ethanol quota:

Three big industries—corn agribusiness, industrial meat, ethanol—plus international agencies have a stake in the U.S. corn crop.

How should the Obama administration handle this?

  • Waive the ethanol quota?
  • Keep the ethanol quota?
  • Do nothing?
  • Do something else?  If so, what?
Aug 8 2012

Question for today: how should we support mid-size dairy farms?

My “thought for a summer weekend” post elicited interesting comments.

Let’s start with the one from FarmerJane, a mid-size dairy farmer who is a frequent contributor.

She asks: How can farmers and consumers find ways to dialog and share information?

She says (and I’m doing some heavy editing here, with her permission):

Thoughts about ag are dominated by a few powerful big media writers.  When we farmers try to speak, we find ourselves excoriated….Rural America does not seem to have any sort of spokesperson who has access to national media.  The issues are framed by a handful of urban food-elite writing whose thoughts then trickle down to how rural farmers are perceived…I think the inclusion of farmers in food dialog would bring a multidisciplinary approach to the issue of food:  environment, ag economics, animal welfare, food systems to name a few. But what are the ways this could happen?

I feel that we, the average farmer of the middle are being marginalized.

I asked: What would you like to see done for farmers like you, neither CAFO, nor small.  She had several suggestions, which I summarize here mostly in my words (hers are in quotes):

Fix milk marketing orders and “end-product” pricing.  Right now, prices are paid to farmers according to the use of the milk.  From high prices to low: Class I (fluid milk), Class II (yogurt), Class III (cheese), Class IV(butter/powder).  If the push is to turn milk into yogurt, cheese, or butter, dairy farmers don’t get paid as much.

Encourage local production.  “The eastern half of the country is actually in “milk deficit” of about 3.2 billion pounds per month, while the western half is pushing the milk out like there is no tomorrow…Farmers in the western part of the country are calling for supply management to rein in some of this rapid growth, while we here in the east are generally opposed to it.”

Make pricing more transparent.  “Farmers don’t know instantly what dairy prices are (hopefully this will change as farmers have pushed hard on this issue to come out of the Stone Age).”

Cap supports on CAFOs.  “Some of the major NY CAFO’s got millions in terms of ‘corn subsidies’ in addition to dairy payments.”

Support mid-size dairy herds: The trigger point at which a farm becomes a CAFO in NY is only 200 cows.  Extension estimates that meeting CAFO requirements at this limit keeps farmers at 199 cows because the compliance cost is something like $162,000.

Reregionalize dairy processing: “meaning more processors in NY who can compete for the farmers’ milk….The more competition for milk the better, especially from a number of smaller processors that farmers and smaller coops can negotiate with.”

Deal with anti-competitive forces. Large dairies are engaged in market collusion and this hurts smaller dairies.  “ Massive retail level buyer consolidation is another issue… Walmart has the power to drive down farmer prices in all dairy categories… The more we can do to break the Walmart grip, the better off we all will be.”

Look at the trends.  “ I know that NY has gone from 30,000,000 acres of farmland when we were kids, to just 7,000,000 today.  There are some 3,000,000 acres of abandoned grazing farmlands Upstate, with empty barns as far as one can see in some areas.  And, I see an increasing number of huge CAFO’s with all-immigrant work forces who send every penny home, cows that never go outdoors, and emptied out Main Streets up here….I wonder how it could possibly make sense not to encourage farms of all kinds, especially making use of the grasslands that are close to NYC.”

Her overall question: “How does one move these questions into the public realm for intelligent discussion?

Senator Gillibrand has made it her business to understand dairy policies as they affect New York State.  For anyone who has ever tried to understand milk marketing orders, that’s an achievement (see below).

Responses?  Any good ideas for FarmerJane?

Jul 16 2012

The House version of the farm bill: dysfunction or posturing?

Is this the way to make law?

After a 13-hour mark-up session that lasted past midnight last week, the House Agriculture Committee approved, 35-11, its version of the 2012 Farm Bill.

The bill is so flawed that USDA Tom Vilsack felt compelled to issue a critical statement:

Americans deserve a farm and jobs bill that reforms the safety net for producers in times of need, promotes the bio-based economy, conserves our natural resources, strengthens rural communities,  promotes job growth in rural America, and supports food assistance to low-income families. 

Unfortunately, the bill produced by the House Agriculture Committee contains deep cuts in SNAP, including a provision that will deny much-needed food assistance to 3 million Americans, mostly low-income working families with children as well as seniors. The proposed cuts…wouldn’t just leave Americans hungry – they would stunt economic growth.  The bill also makes misguided reductions to critical energy and conservation program efforts.

For the politics of what the House Ag Committee is doing, Politico has a good summary.  According to its analysis, the problems with the bill are so enormous that it is unlikely that the House will ever get to it. 

The reality is that GOP leaders are worried about a messy floor fight over divisive regional policies months before voters head to the ballot boxes. Odd couples could abound: The far left and far right would likely vote against the bill on the floor, the former thinking the bill cuts too much from food stamps, the latter insisting cuts aren’t deep enough.

There’s also division over how much the government should be subsidizing the farm industry and whether it should control commodity prices. Arguing complex farm policy on the House floor in this political climate gives many Republican members pause.

If the House can’t pass a bill, then it would go into negotiations with the Senate with a weak negotiating stance.

…Now, they’ll likely have to grit their teeth and vote to extend current policy. And that will come only after rural lawmakers go home for all of August and face questions about why the bill hasn’t been debated on the House floor.

The Environmental Working Group gives ten reasons to reject the House bill:

  • Cuts Nutrition Assistance
  • Gives Big Farmers a Big Raise
  • Expands Crop Insurance by $9.5 billion
  • Cuts Conservation Programs by $6 billion
  • Lacks Protections for Prairies
  • Includes Anti-Environmental Riders
  • Has Few Incentives for Healthy Diets
  • Weakens Regulation of GMO Crops
  • Guts State Food and Farm Standards
  • Repeals Organic Certification Program

Fixing the farm bill is a formidable challenge. 

But aren’t lawmakers supposed to take on such challenges as part of what we elected them to do?

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.