Top 10 Things You Should Know About The Farm Bill

Farm Bill

If you care about the affordability and availability of healthy food and clean drinking water, here is what you need to know about the massive piece of legislation that guides federal agriculture policy.

Congress rewrites the Farm Bill every five years or so. It drives federal spending for farm, nutrition and conservation programs and is the only important piece of environmental legislation that Congress is almost certain to enact over the next 18 months. In just a single year–2010–Farm Bill programs spent $96.3 billion. With so much on the table, here’s the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) list of the 10 most important things you should know about the Farm Bill:

1. The Farm Bill doles out billions of taxpayer dollars in subsidies to the largest five commodity crops: corn, cotton, rice, wheat and soybeans. Those payments go out, regardless of need, and they mostly fail to help the nation’s real working farm and ranch families. In fact, since 1995, just 10 percent of subsidized farms–the largest and wealthiest operations–have raked in 74 percent of all subsidy payments. 62 percent of farmers in the United States did not collect subsidy payments, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

2. The Obama Administration says fruits and vegetables should fill about half of our plates during meal times. Yet, only a tiny fraction of the Farm Bill funding goes to programs that support healthy fruits and vegetables, and many of these programs have no budget going into the next Farm Bill, which is up for renewal in 2012.

3. Some 90,000 checks went out to wealthy investors and absentee land owners in more than 350 American cities in 2010, despite the so-called “actively engaged” rule adopted in the 2008 Farm Bill. This rule was designed to ensure that federal payments go only to those who are truly working the land. It hasn’t worked.

4. A handful of other commodities also qualify for government support, including peanuts, sorghum and mohair. Dairy and sugar producers have separate price and market controls that are highly regulated and can be costly to the government.

5. The flawed subsidy system creates perverse incentives for farmers to grow as much industrial-scale, fertilizer- and pesticide-intensive crops as possible, with harmful effects on our environment and drinking water–and the availability of organic food in your grocery store.

6. The Farm Bill provides money for good things too. More than two-thirds of the authorized spending goes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the food stamp program), which helps low-income Americans purchase food.

7. Other Farm Bill dollars pay for the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, which gives vouchers to seniors to buy food at farmer’s markets, and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which provides nutritious produce to schools. These nutrition programs are likely to be first on the chopping block as Congress tries to reduce the federal debt, while the subsidy programs will surely be protected.

8. The government makes a lot of promises about supporting conservation programs to protect water, soil and wildlife habitat, but those promises largely go underfunded and unfulfilled. Still, the Farm Bill provided more than $4 billion this year to help farmers conserve soil, clean up the water and protect habitat for wildlife.

9. The Farm Bill should do a lot more to provide healthy food, protect the environment and help working farm and ranch families, but there are a host of well-funded and well-connected interests that benefit greatly from the status quo. The list includes politicians looking to fill campaign coffers, corporate agri-chemical giants like Monsanto and Syngenta seeking to expand their markets, and Big Ag’s public relations and lobby organizations, which cash in year after year.

10. Since only two percent of Americans directly engage in farming, the farm bill is largely crafted and debated out of the spotlight. Historically, the process of writing it embodies the worst kind of bipartisan logrolling and horse-trading.

Knowing that a lot of the money goes to nutrition programs and that the legislation has major effects on American’s food supply, we think it’s time to start calling it a Food and Farm Bill. EWG’s top priority in the next Farm Bill is to protect food assistance programs for those most in need, especially in the lingering aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. EWG also wants to shift a large chunk of the farm subsidy dollars into conservation programs and reform crop insurance–which has ballooned into another lavish subsidy for producers. Finally, EWG wants energy provisions that encourage truly sustainable biofuels and biomass energy alternatives, not heavily subsidized and inefficient corn ethanol.

A version of this article originally published by AgMag

Leave a Comment

View Comments

  1. LindaCO
    Thursday, June 30th, 2011
    Thanks for this good info.
  2. Jason
    Friday, July 1st, 2011
    Worth pointing out that corn is the most highly subsidized crop and it doesn't go to "eating corn" but a non-edible corn that is processed for high fructose corn syrup. Yes, Coke is being subsidized with your tax dollars....
  3. Tuesday, July 5th, 2011
    Thank you for trying to simplify a mound of smelly political wonking known as "the Farm Bill".

    Interestingly enough, once upon a time, the USDA was not only a proponent of the farm, but a valued source for methodology, economics, and stewardship. The "County Agent" was a member of the community, valued for his or her knowledge, ready to provide advice and education on planting, water resource management, production, conservation or any manner of innumerable subjects.

    The bureaucratic "red tape", political wheeling, and the USDA's loss of mission has left the true "ag" family fending for themselves while large operational farming thrives by exploiting the system.
  4. Wednesday, July 6th, 2011
    And here’s an 11th thing you should know: the Farm Bill impacts food prices and the livelihoods of small-scale farmers in developing countries worldwide. From its guidelines on subsidies to its approach to food aid, the Farm Bill is doing a lot of damage. For example: after the earthquake, Haitian rice farmers found themselves in a losing competition with free U.S. rice distributed as food aid. And several years ago, U.S. subsidies for biofuels helped send the price of corn soaring, contributing to a global food crisis in 2008 that left 100 million more people hungry. Farmers in the developing world are stuck. Their votes don’t count here in the U.S. and their opinions about the Farm Bill don’t mean much to American legislators looking for re-election. American Jewish World Service is ramping up a food justice campaign to oppose the Farm Bill and support small-scale farmers in the developing world: http://ajws.org/hunger/ghs/promoting_food_justice.html
  5. Friday, July 8th, 2011
    The article does not live up to it's title, though the idea is sound and the values are crucial ones.

    The top thing to know about the farm bill is that there are no price floors and ceilings and no supply management (reductions and reserve supplies) in the commodity title. The US and global economic impacts of this are much bigger than the nutrition title. The top thing to know about subsidies is merely that they hide this fact and divert attention. Agribusiness buyers, the main exploiters, are fully supported here, as they the true issues behind their advantages are not mentioned, and instead false issues are raised to hide this.

    The farm subsidy data is not valid, as the raw data does not lend itself to the analysis and conclusions. Only a minority of recipients are full time farmers, and most of the data is for people who are in the program only on some years (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc.. These are then compared with those in the program every year 1995-2006.

    To merely eliminate commodity subsidies (ie. without a return to fair trade price floors etc.,) would be more devastating to food movement goals than the 1980s farm crisis, if typical market conditions return, as farm programs are much more unjust than they were in the early 1980s, and family farmers were put at much greater risk in the 2008 farm bill.

    Subsidized commodities have had much lower prices than fruits and vegetables, and much lower shares of the food dollar. Farm commodity prices plus subsidies are typically lower than fruit and vegetable prices alone, as measured by parity statics. It would be bad for fruit and vegetable growers to also get these low prices, even with subsidies, as they'd make less money.

    The subsidy system is not what creates the bad incentives, as prices plus subsidies have gone down dramatically since 1952 (subsidies started in 1961). There should be fair trade price floors with no subsidies.

    It's flawed logic to criticize both zero price floors (low prices) and also price floors (not so low prices). Price floors in the past did not cost money because farmers paid for them with interest payments. They have not been "costly to the government." Price floors and ceilings and supply management are moderately regulated, merely putting upper and lower limits on prices, to protect consumers and farmers from exploitation and stop the negative impacts of volatility and speculation.

    Find documentation by clicking my name. Food movement leaders like EWG are misinformed, and siding against justice on these issues.
  6. Friday, July 8th, 2011
    @Jordan Namerow, American Jewish World Service: Jewish justice leaders were supportive of the issues I've raised in activism during the 1980s Farm Crisis, and family farm groups like PrairieFire Rural Action (Iowa) were active against antisemitism.

    The biggest damage of the farm bill globally has been the reduction (1953-1995) and elimination (1996-) of fair trade price floors and supply reduction programs, not the compensations to farmers for these reductions (1961-1980) and losses (1981-2006). American Jewish World Service should support the Food from Family Farms Act of the National Family Farm Coalition, not a return to export dumping (cheap prices) on LDC farmers. Least Developed Countries are 70% rural.

    Under recent higher prices, the price of corn has not hit even the top 50% of yearly average prices (or half of the record price of $17.40, adjusted for inflation. 80% of the "undernourished" are rural (FAO, Livestock in the Balance, p. 3), in need of fair trade farm prices for wealth and jobs creation. This is a huge general Farm Commodity prices have fallen since 1953, and most were generally below full costs in the US 1981-2006. Because of the decades of devastation, the Food Poverty Crisis, therefore, is now a dilemma where the long term solution, higher farm prices is also devastating in the short run. A return to export dumping, as desired by corporate agribusiness, is no solution, and should not be supported by American Jewish World Service. Food aid for Haiti should have been purchased at fair trade prices from Haitian farmers.
  7. Pam
    Tuesday, July 12th, 2011
    How do we get this wonderful summary to Michelle Obama? It's a quick read and seems appropriate for someone who wants to help with childhood diabetes.
    It's great that she is trying to "get us moving" and showing us how to dance but, we haven't got a prayer for healthy food with bills like this. This government needs to make some real strides towards fixing this system that is making us all sick!
Top