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SNAP: the Other Corporate Subsidy in the Farm Bill?

This week Congress begins hearings on the 2012 farm bill, the massive piece of legislation that gets updated about every five years and undergirds America’s entire food supply, but that few mortals can even understand. As nutrition professor Marion Nestle recently lamented, “no one has any idea what the farm bill is about. It’s too complicated for any mind to grasp.”

Nestle also called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) “the huge elephant in the farm bill” because its enormity trumps everything else. This entitlement program (the budget expands as more people enroll) provides modest monthly benefits for food purchases and represents a critical lifeline to many people in need.

In recent years, public health and food policy experts have sounded the alarm about how farm bill programs supporting all the wrong crops (think corn and soy) contribute to America’s epidemic of obesity and diet-related diseases. This is certainly true, along with a host of other economic drivers.

But are we focusing too much on the commodity title and not enough on the nutrition title when it comes to how the farm bill truly subsidizes Big Food? After all, even if the commodity title was completely eliminated, most economists believe it would have minimal impact on healthy food consumption. Read more

The Farm Bill is a Climate Bill

As a possible 2012 farm bill looms, the agriculture committee leaders and their industrial agriculture lobby remoras are sorting through the smoking ruins of the 2011 secret farm bill process. They hope to come up with a unified position from which to begin deliberations on a new farm bill. Sadly, one thing they’ve all agreed to cut is 7 million acres from the Conservation Reserve Program. The CRP is administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and pays farmers to keep highly erodible land out of production.

While many recognize that putting land into conservation programs leads to cleaner water, healthier soil and robust wildlife habitat, few realize that CRP land also plays a major role in fighting climate change. According to the USDA, one acre of protected land sequesters 1.66 metric tons of carbon every year, carbon that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere.  The 7 million acres about to be cut from the Conservation Reserve Program have been putting 11.6 million metric tons of carbon into the soil every year. Read more

Congress Contemplates Quick and Dirty Farm Bill

Last month, I wrote that prospects for reforming the Farm Bill were dim. My prior assessment is turning out to be outrageously optimistic.

Typically, passage of the Farm Bill occurs every five years and involves a lengthy process of hearings, constituent meetings, and (sad but true) many a high-priced meal on the tab of some lobbyist or other—followed by detailed negotiations between the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. It has also often been seen as an opportunity to—as one recent action alert put it—change the food system by supporting small farms, investing in rural economies, and “supporting more diversified farming and livestock systems, healthy food access, conservation, and research.”

The next reauthorization was not expected until late in 2012—if not 2013—but through an unexpected turn of events, it may be decided much faster, and with even less input from the good food movement than the last one. Read more

Kitchen Table Talks Event: The Food and Farm Bill 2012

Everyone from Willie Nelson to your average Zuccotti Park resident knows that we need to see policy that reflects our national needs for good, clean, healthy, and fair food. But, how and where to get involved in a piece of legislation as complicated and entrenched as the Farm Bill? To aid in your education, we’re excited to announce a special Kitchen Table Talks on Sunday, November 6, in conjunction with the Community Food Security Coalition’s annual conference. Join us in San Francisco for a lively conversation about the Farm Bill at our new location at 18 Reasons and we’ll take a look at this important piece of legislation from national, state and local levels, and answer your questions about what the it is, where it is headed and how you can get involved. Read more

Turning the Farm Bill into the Food Bill

I work in food and agriculture, so when I sit down to a locally sourced, home cooked dinner with my family, I often think of the 2012 Farm Bill’s connection to the food on my table. Re-christened the “Food and Farm Bill” by a fierce tribe of good food advocates, the 2012 version is the most important piece of environmental legislation that Congress will enact in the next 18 months.

I have no illusion that my dinners are completely different from those of millions of Americans. Most people eat mainly processed food as a result of the billions of subsidy dollars diverted to industrial agriculture and the cheap food that is produced by it. The next Farm Bill is our best shot at fixing these flaws in our food system.

Good news: the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is fighting for better policies that would make local and organic dinners like mine the norm rather than the exception, including turning its attention to the 2012 Farm Bill. Read more

Environmental Working Group Releases New Farm Subsidy Database

Farm subsidies are complicated, making them the central front of a heated debate between farmers, politicians and consumers. Farmers don’t like to be dependent on them, but most large-scale producers cannot live without them. Politicians see opportunities for making budget cuts ($245.2 billion was spent on farm payments from 1995-2009 alone, and after all, when subsidies were created during the Great Depression, they were meant to be temporary) and yet these payments are now providing cheap raw materials to the ADMs, Cargills and Monsantos of the world, who give major campaign contributions. Consumers see that the most heavily subsidized crops (corn, soybeans, cotton, wheat, and rice) are producing a lot of things that they no longer want to eat (high fructose corn syrup, processed foods and feedlot meat), but they often misunderstand what is actually needed to transition away from the subsidy system.

Will transparency help to build a more nuanced discussion around changing our farm subsidy system? Today, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released the latest version of their widely referenced Farm Subsidy Database, with more detailed information on farm payments by individual, county, state and congressional district and including a national summary. In looking at the numbers closely, it becomes apparent that still, the wealthiest farms are receiving the most subsidies. With populist anger over federal spending spilling over, the government searching to get out of debt, and 74% of earnings having gone to the top 10% of farmers from 1995-2009, will farm subsidies finally come under the knife in the 2012 Farm Bill? Read more

A New Vision for the 2012 Farm Bill?

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN), who last year called those who spend money on organic produce dumb,” may become the unlikely champion of a Farm Bill in 2012 that could create opportunities for more sustainable farmers.

This week, the House Agriculture Committee held the first hearing on the 2012 Farm Bill, the main piece of legislation that every five years establishes our nations food and agriculture policy. The Farm Bill affects farm payments, supplemental nutrition assistance programs (SNAP, formally called food stamps), international trade, conservation programs, the opportunities in rural communities, agriculture research, food safety, and more. Currently 70% of farm payments go to the wealthiest 10% of producers of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice. These kinds of oversights are the result of a Farm Bill that has been largely cobbled together over time.

But it seems the House Agriculture Committee is gearing up for a more serious overhaul this time around. Read more