It's Worse than the Status Quo

In the midst of dealing with the fiscal cliff, Congress passed a one-year extension of the farm bill that eliminated funding for almost every even vaguely innovative agriculture policy and kept in place expensive and outdated subsidies that benefit big agribusiness. From the perspective of anyone interested in making change in America’s farm and food system, it was a disaster.

“There's much isn’t to be happy about with this extension,” David deGennaro, a legislative analyst with the Environmental Working Group, said.

“If you care about conservation, food production, or reforming the farm bill, this is a bad deal,” said Justin Tatham, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ senior Washington representative for food & environment. “It's worse than the status quo.”

“They took all the newer, smaller, but most innovative programs and left them out of the extension,” says Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. At the same time, lawmakers left in subsidies that the House Agriculture Committee and the Senate had voted to end. “It was a crushing double whammy.”

Think about all the work and conversations that have happened over the past decade or so about reforming the food and farming system in this country. Organic food. Renewable energy. Farmer’s markets. More support for minority farmers. Young people deciding to make farming their profession. The past couple of farm bills have supported these activities, with relatively small chunks of funding. This new extension cuts them off.

The farm bill is one of those behemoth pieces of legislation that requires heroic efforts to craft and pass through Congress. The last one, made law in 2008, authorized $288 billion in spending. The two biggest programs—the ones that keep the bill glued together and attractive to enough members to ensure the bill gets through—are food and nutrition assistance programs like SNAP (generally known as food stamps) and crop insurance. The bulk of the bill’s authorized spending, about four-fifths in the past, goes to food and nutrition. Most of the rest goes to supports for big, industrial farms, in the form of crop insurance or commodity supports. In the scope of the bill’s vast expenditures, the amount of money that goes to support organic farming, beginning farmers, on-farm conservation, and other innovative, progressive agricultural programs is negligible. But it’s these programs that had their funding zeroed out.

What’s especially disappointing for advocates of farming reform is that Congress had been making progress towards some substantial changes. The Senate passed a farm bill back in June, and the House Agriculture Committee approved its version back in July. Both these bills eliminated direct payments to farmers growing commodities like corn and soy. “These are payments that go out every year regardless of need, regardless of market conditions, regardless if a farmer plants a crop on the land,” says EWG’s deGennaro. They began in the 1990s as a temporary measure, and, as programs that give free money to powerful constituencies are wont to do, stuck around. “They're an incredibly waste, and they're not targeted to need,” says deGennaro. “It's a bad way to be spending taxpayer dollars.” The farm bill extension that passed Congress as part of the fiscal cliff deal keeps these payments going for at least the next nine months.

The extension bill that made this happen had little to do with the work that had happened over 2012 on a new farm bill. Now, the lawmakers on the House and Senate agriculture committees have to re-craft the reforms they had negotiated. But it’s not clear that political outcome would be much different. The main reason that the farm bill expired without a replacement is that House Speaker John Boehner never brought his ag committee’s version to the floor, where House Republicans would have tried to cut food and nutrition funding even more than the Senate bill and House committee bill already had. Republicans’ urge to cut won’t necessarily have changed nine months from now.

“The committees can go back and do the same thing all over again, but there would be no change in terms of whether it would ever come to the House floor,” says NSAC’s Hoefner. “We might be in a period where we're gong to do short term extension after short term extension.”

Programs for alternative agricultural won’t necessarily fare any better, either. “All these other titles—all these programs in the millions, not billions—those programs are going to be under more stress to maintain or receive even a minimum level of funding,” says Tatham. It’s as if, from the federal government’s perspective, any progress on bettering the country’s food system never existed—or, if it existed, didn’t matter at all. 

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