The Farm Bill is perhaps the most important piece of legislation that most Americans know very little about. Important if you eat food that is…
The Farm Bill first came about in the mid-20th century as a result of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. It was a package of policies aimed at making sure poor Americans always had enough food to eat, and that farmers received the support they needed to stay in business and feed the country. It was meant to ensure that our food and farming systems would remain protected from the fickle forces of weather, price fluctuations, and a complex global economy.
Since that time, every five years or so, the bill is revamped and passed, with the exception of this year. In June we gave you an update on the progress of the 2012 Farm Bill. On September 30, 2012, the 2008 Farm Bill quietly expired.
Contained in the bill’s 700+ pages of legislation, are details of programs covering some 15 different spending categories and over $100 billion dollars. There are policies on everything from food stamps to organic growing research, corn subsidies and rural development.
Earlier this summer, the Senate passed a version of the Farm Bill that, while admittedly flawed, seemed to be moving in a good direction. Then the House Agricultural Committee passed their own, different draft of the Farm Bill in July. It appeared that the two sides were headed for a big debate, but then the ball dropped completely. Rather than schedule a debate over the two versions of the bill, the bill was simply allowed to expire.
What does this mean and why should we care? There are many reasons why anyone in America who cares about healthy and sustainable food systems should be concerned. To simplify things a bit, Good.is recently ran a great piece outlining five of reasons that the Farm Bill expiration is a big deal:
1. New farmers markets, roadside stands and community supported agriculture businesses do not have access to important start-up funds. Programs like the Rural Micro-entrepreneur Assistance Program, which helps to create jobs and expand small business in rural communities, will go without funding.
2. Programs that offer incentives to farmers who engage in organic or sustainable agricultural practices are all on hold. Same goes for dedicated research funds for organic farming.
3. For the time being, farmers are not able to enroll ecologically sensitive lands like wetlands or grasslands in restoration projects.
4. Programs that cater to young farmers - like education, technical assistance and training - are at risk of losing funding completely.
5. Organic labeling is a pricey endeavor, and the programs that help to cover these costs are at stake.
Back in June, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group joined forces with Dan Imhoff of Food Fight 2012 to write an open letter to members of Congress with the hope of making the Farm Bill better. They enlisted big names like Alice Walters, Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry to join forces. In the letter they explain:
“Most of the benefits from these programs would flow to the producers of five big commodity crops (corn, soy, cotton, rice and wheat). Meanwhile, millions of consumers lack access to affordable fruits and vegetables, with the result that the diets of fewer than five percent of adults meet the USDA’s daily nutrition guidelines. Partly as a result, one in three young people is expected to develop diabetes and the diet-related health care costs of diabetes, cancer, coronary heart disease and stroke are rising precipitously, reaching an estimated $70 billion a year.”
The expiration of the Farm Bill leaves all these issues still on the table with no policies for guidance.
At this point, there are a few things that might happen. According to Slate magazine, “Congress might negotiate a new Farm Bill during the lame duck session at the end of this year. Alternately, an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill could be passed to help farmers plan for the 2013 planting season and continue conservation and other programs whose funding has been suspended. Or, a version of a Farm Bill could be attached to an upcoming budget bill. Or the bill could stay in limbo indefinitely.”
The direction forward remains unclear, but what is clear is that the Farm Bill matters and it should be getting more press. Healthy, sustainable, localized food systems are crucial for the resilience of our nation. With severe weather like the 2012 drought, the food vs. fuel debates in biofuel manufacture, rising corn prices and more Americans needing food assistance to feed themselves than we have ever seen, there is dire need for relevant, forward-thinking and sustainable food policies.
For more information you can look to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition or the Environmental Working Group. Food is important to everyone, and creating resilient, healthy, local food systems is at the core of our work at Sustainable America.