Coming in at more than 600 pages, the federal farm bill is an elaborate and convoluted piece of legislation that lays out most federal food and farm policies. Members of Congress renegotiate this bill every five years, and it governs everything from farm subsidies to biofuels to international food aid. The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, our most recent farm bill, is in effect through September, meaning Congress is currently working to broker a new farm bill.
Current estimates suggest we have spent more than $400 billion on farm bill programs over the past five years. That is a lot of federal funding, and a slash-happy Republican House noticed.
Congressman Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” FY2013 budget proposes removing over $180 billion from farm bill programs over the next 10 years, including a $134 billion cut to the federal nutrition program formerly known as food stamps. By targeting nutrition assistance for cuts, Ryan and the 228 Republican representatives who voted for his plan told the nation that we should let millions of Americans go hungry to balance the budget.
Before automatically criticizing these budget-cutting efforts, it is important to review what the farm bill actually funds. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that nine percent of farm bill spending goes to conservation programs, 10 percent goes to crop insurance and 12 percent goes to commodity crop subsidies for corn, cotton, rice, wheat and soybeans. Almost 70 percent of 2008-2017 funding is allocated for nutrition assistance, largely through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which succeeded food stamps.
Considering that the majority of farm bill spending now goes to nutrition assistance, perhaps we should rebrand this piece of legislation as the food and farm bill, or even just the food bill. This would better align the bill’s title with its current funding goals. And it would send an important message to legislators and voters: The bill is not meant to be an archaic, confusing piece of legislation that benefits only a small subset of farmers and perpetuates an unjust food system. In some ways, budget cuts and rebranding may be just what we need to realign federal funding with Americans’ growing desire to increase access to healthy, sustainably grown food.
Currently, farmers receive commodity crop subsidies whether they produce a crop or not. We spend eight times more farm bill funding on commodity crops than we do on fruits, nuts and vegetables, but the economic returns on commodity crops are only twice those of these other “specialty crops,” giving our current subsidy system a relatively poor return on investment. Commodity crop subsidies are relics of early efforts to avoid violations of international trade laws, and these commodity payments, which were intended to phase out decades ago, currently benefit a very small portion of farmers. In fact, 62 percent of U.S. farms do not collect any subsidy payments, and in California, less than 10 percent of farms receive government subsidies.
Given the current budget-cutting climate in Washington, reducing commodity crop subsidies may finally be politically feasible. This is an opportunity to strategically restructure the food and farm bill, but we must be careful to ensure that cuts do not expand to include crucial farm bill funding for conservation and nutrition assistance programs.
Congress could go beyond budget cuts and encourage more sustainable food systems by endorsing the Local Farms, Food and Jobs bill introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), an organic farmer. Among many useful reforms, the Pingree-Brown bill would increase funding for local processing and distribution centers, promote the incorporation of local produce into school lunches, facilitate fruit and vegetable access for food stamp recipients and seniors and increase funding for specialty crops, organic producers, diversified operations, small-scale farms and beginning farmers. The projected price tag is $100 million per year, which is less than 0.2 percent of average annual spending on the last farm bill. When coupled with reductions to commodity crop subsidies, this could represent an important opportunity to help reshape agriculture policy and scale up local and regional food systems.
Too often, sustainable food activists are content with buying local and choosing organic. These actions, though laudable, are not enough. Many activists bemoan subsidies in blog posts and casual conversations, but these forms of activism rarely make it to policymakers’ ears. It is time for us to get political. Join me in calling your Congressional representatives and telling them your taxpayer dollars should be spent creating more sustainable and accessible food systems. The message I shared with Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), who represents the Stanford community, was simple: no cuts for nutrition programs, no cuts for conservation programs and support for the Local Farms, Food and Jobs bill. I hope you’ll join me and send a strong message to Washington, because voting with our forks is not enough to change our food systems.
Nervous about dialing your congressional representatives? Email Jenny at jrempel “at” stanford “dot” edu for some confidence-boosting tips.