by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Farm-policy

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!

Jan 1 2011

Predictions: national nutrition issues for 2011

My first San Francisco Chronicle “Food Matters” column for the new year deals with some predictions:

Q: Whatever you used as a crystal ball last year turned out to be a pretty good predictor of the most prominent food issues of 2010. How about trying again: What food matters will we be hearing about in 2011?

A: It doesn’t take a crystal ball to figure out what’s coming up with food issues. I’m happy to make predictions, especially since most seem fairly safe.

Dietary guidelines will be released this month. By law, they were due last year and are already late. What will they say? The 2010 guidelines advisory committee recommended eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but introduced a new euphemism – SOFAs, or Solid Fats and Added Sugars – for the “eat less” advice. SOFAs really mean “cut down on fatty meat and dairy products” and “avoid sugary sodas.”

Will government agencies have the nerve to say so? Let’s hope.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will issue a new food guide. The 2005 pyramid’s rainbow stripes proved impossible to teach and useless to anyone without a computer. I’ve heard a rumor that I will love the new design. I’m skeptical. I liked the original 1992 pyramid. It showed that bottom-of-the-pyramid foods were healthiest, making it unpopular with companies selling top-of-the-pyramid products. But it is healthier to eat some foods than others (see: dietary guidelines).

Will the USDA improve on the 1992 design? We will soon find out.

The fights over food safety will continue. At the last possible moment, Congress passed the food safety bill by a large majority. Now the fights really begin.

Funding will be most contentious, with the actual regulations not far behind. The Congressional Budget Office absurdly considered the bill’s provisions to be “budget neutral.” They are anything but.

The bill’s provisions require the Food and Drug Administration to hire more inspectors just at a time when Republican lawmakers have sworn to cut domestic spending. The FDA also must translate the bill’s requirements and exemptions for small farmers into regulations.

Rule-making is a lengthy process subject to public comment and, therefore, political maneuvering. Watch the lobbying efforts ratchet up as food producers, large and small, attempt to head off safety rules they think they won’t like.

Expect more lawsuits over the scientific basis of health claims. The Federal Trade Commission just settled a $21 million claim against Dannon for advertising that yogurt protects against the flu. The agency also has gone after scientifically unsubstantiated claims that omega-3s in kiddie supplements promote brain development and that pomegranate juice protects against prostate problems. POM Wonderful has already countersued the FTC on grounds that the First Amendment protects commercial speech. I’ll be watching this case carefully.

The FDA will issue new front-of-package label regulations. The FDA has promised to propose an at-a-glance symbol to indicate the overall nutritional value of food products. Food companies like the Guideline Daily Amount spots they are using in the upper corners of food packages because the symbols are factual but nonjudgmental. The FDA, however, is considering red, yellow and green traffic-light symbols that do convey judgments. Food companies say they will not voluntarily use a symbol that tells people to eat less of their products.

Will the FDA have the courage to make traffic lights mandatory? It will need courage. The new British government dealt with the traffic-light idea by summarily dismantling the food agency that suggested it.

Corporations will seek new ways to co-opt critics. Under the guise of corporate social responsibility, food companies have been making large donations to organizations that might otherwise criticize their products. The most recent example is the decision by Save the Children, formerly a staunch advocate of soda taxes, to drop that cause coincidentally at a time when its executives were negotiating funding from Coca-Cola.

Such strategies remind me of how the Philip Morris cigarette company distributed grants to leading arts groups. Expect food companies to use generosity to neutralize critics and buy silence.

School meals will make front-page news. Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act last month. Now the USDA must implement it by setting nutrition standards, adding fresh fruits and vegetables (some locally grown) and expanding eligibility.

President Obama has promised to restore the $4.5 billion “borrowed” from the SNAP (food stamp) program to fund this act. The scrambling over the regulations and financing should make excellent spectator sport.

Farm bill advocates will be mobilizing. You might think it too early to be worrying about the 2012 Farm Bill, but I’ve already gotten position papers analyzing commodity and food-assistance issues from groups gearing up to lobby Congress to bring agricultural policy in line with nutrition and public health policy.

I have a personal interest in such papers. I will be teaching a course on the Farm Bill at New York University next fall. Please get busy and write more of them!

Happy new year, and let’s see how my guesses play out.

Sep 29 2010

Colbert on farm workers

I would have loved to be in the room when Stephen Colbert testified before Congress a few days ago.

I’ve been to congressional hearings.  They are a peculiarly American form of Kabuki theater, full of posturing, entirely predictable script-following, and institutionalized rudeness.  Colbert, in character, took perfect advantage of the opportunity.

I thought his testimony was brilliantly funny.  But I can well understand why the members of Congress stuck with Kabuki rituals—stony silence and hiding behind their equivalents of fluttering fans–BlackBerries.

Mr. Colbert gave devastating testimony, well worth 5 minutes to watch.  One of the Times’ bloggers (Sept 24) made a point of what he said at the end when he went out of character:  “I like talking about people who don’t have any power, and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t have any rights themselves.”

In character, his testimony offered some ideas about how to stop undocumented farm labor: “The obvious answer is for all of us to stop eating fruits and vegetables–and if you look at the recent obesity statistics, you’ll see that many Americans have already started.”

He’s right on about that one.  Kim Severson of the New York Times reports:

Despite two decades of public health initiatives, stricter government guidelines, record growth of farmers’ markets and the east of products like salad in a bag, Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables.

Quoting CDC statistics, she reports that “only 26 percent of the nation’s adults eat vegetables three or more times a day…and no, that does not include French fries.”  We do better with fruit: 33% of Americans eat 2 servings of fruit a day.

All of this is why concern about our food system and where our food comes from also must include concern about who works in the fields, raises the animals, and works in the slaughterhousese.  Immigration is a food issue, big time.

Thanks Colbert–in character and not–for taking this issue to our government.  May it do some good.