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Back to the Future: Compromise Farm Bill Will At Least Bring U.S. Farm Policy into the 21st Century

Jan. 29, 2014

By Slow Food USA Staff

Depending on whom you ask, the new Farm Bill approved by House-Senate negotiators represents a big bipartisan victory. Or, it’s an affront to the democratic process.

Farmers Harvesting HayWhile it may seem like a defeat for those hoping to reform farm policy, we all might want to take a step back and remember that the succession of roughly five-year Farm Bills, since the Great Depression, was specifically designed to support and fuel an increasingly industrial food system. The fact that we, healthy food and sustainable agriculture advocates, have managed to chisel out our own mandatory funding streams within the massive five-year omnibus bill during this divisive political climate must be viewed as a bitter-sweet victory.

If it wasn’t for the tireless advocacy of civic-minded people, including Slow Food USA members, who took part in strategic letter-writing campaigns and other calls-to-action in collaboration between like-minded organizations such as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), we never would have seen lawmakers, on this scale, push to fund programs that support local and organic agriculture or healthy food access.

So, with a little help from our friends at NSAC, here’s a breakdown of some key provisions – the good and the bad.

The Good:

  • The bill maintains funding for critically needed programs for beginning farmers.
  • It invests in organic agriculture and supports local agriculture.
  • $100 million for healthy food incentives will be used to support programs made popular by innovators, such as Fair Food Network and Wholesome Wave. They literally double the value of food stamps at farmers markets.
  • $150 million will be set aside to fund farmers markets and local food promotion programs.
  • The bill dropped the so-called “King Amendment,” which would have blocked state laws regarding food, including welfare standards for animals raised in industrial-like farms.
  • Additionally, negotiators refrained from succumbing to industry pressures to delay the Country of Origin Labeling requirement for meat products.

The Good/Bad:

  • Direct subsidy payments will end, in exchange for an expanded crop insurance program, essentially replacing one flawed program with another.
  • However, negotiators were able to require conservation requirements be met for farmers to file for crop insurance reimbursements.

The Bad:

  • Negotiators left out payment limitation reforms on farm subsidy payment to working farmers.
  • The bill drops provisions that would have modestly reduced insurance payouts to millionaires.
  • The bill also cuts billions of dollars from conservation programs that help farmers address production challenges as well as protect natural resources and the environment.
  • While it is much less severe than the $40 billion the GOP-led House had proposed, the bill will cut SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the food stamp program) funding by about $8 billion by closing a so-called “loophole.” According to the Washington Post, 4% of the families who currently depend upon SNAP (nearly two million people) will receive less food benefits, however, none would lose basic eligibility. Regardless, an attack on the poor during this current economic climate seems incredibly mean-spirited.

Compromise is never easy, and it is disappointing that food assistance to the nation’s poor is used as a negotiation tool. However, many, on both sides of the issues, worn down by a seemingly unending process and mindful of the need to stabilize farm policies, are resigned to call a truce in hopes of negotiating a better Farm Bill in the future.

While the Farm Bill negotiation process itself has pitted allies, enemies and frienemies alike in historic battles, which are enough to give anyone indigestion. Consider this, Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee Debbie Stabenow has openly supported locally grown food and farmers markets. 40 years ago, it would have been unheard of for the chair to even utter the words.

Senator Stabenow and congressional leaders from all over the country are talking about and supporting many of our core issues because people like us are demanding it. With the success of policies supporting good, clean, and fair food, it is important to make sure that we don’t lose the ground that we’ve gained. This is why we believe it is important to support the passage of this Farm Bill, despite the bad provisions. And, it is important to remember what was lost, for that will be the start of the next Farm Bill debate, in 2016.

At risk of conjuring up scenes from the movie Groundhog Day, passage of the Farm Bill is expected. Of course, nothing is a sure thing these days on Capitol Hill. We’ll keep you posted.

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