2012 Farm Bill: Stop Big Ag’s theft of public farm dollars
By Ken Cook
Food Freedom News, April 20, 2012
Every five years, the federal farm bill sets our nation’s food policies – it’s the single biggest factor in determining what ends up on your plate.
But right now Congress is only providing minimal support for healthy, local and organic foods while expanding wasteful subsidies and giveaways that support the wealthiest agribusinesses – at the expense of family farmers.
Next week, the Senate Agriculture Committee will start writing its version of the 2012 farm bill. It’s incredibly important that Congress get this right – so at EWG we’re teaming up with our friends at CREDO Action to stop the giveaway to Big Ag and support food and farm policies that protect our environment and expand access to healthy food.
Tell your senators: Stop the giveaway to Big Ag. Pass a farm bill that supports local, healthy and organic food.
The farm bill affects everything from the food you eat to conservation and nutrition programs. And right now, vital nutrition programs that help feed low-income children and decades-old conservation programs that protect wetlands, grasslands and soil health are rumored to be on the chopping block already.
Meanwhile, Big Ag is working hard to keep open the spigot that sends billions of dollars a year in subsidies to growers of commodity crops like corn, soy and cotton. More than 74 percent of that money goes to wealthy agribusinesses, not to small-scale family farmers who need them.
The bill that emerges from the Senate Agriculture Committee will likely be the best version we can hope for right now – as it will only get more unbalanced in negotiations with the House. It’s vital that the committee members hear from you now.
According to Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the Washington-based National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and a veteran of farm bill fights starting in the ’70s.
• Progressive food and ag programs on the chopping block. For decades, groups like Hoefner’s have worked hard to create a set of programs designed to at least partially offset US farm policy’s tendency to bolster Big Ag. The programs, which the Obama Administration in 2009 grouped under the banner of Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, include initiatives designed to assist new farmers to get loans help communities roll out farmers markets, and reduce costs for farms to transition to organic.
Taken as a whole, Hoefner says, the programs amount to about $175 million per year—less than 1 percent of the non-food stamps portion of the farm bill. “These programs make up an extremely modest portion of the farm bill’s budget, but they’ve had a large impact on communities nationwide,” Hoefner said. Hoefner pointed to a wide-ranging recent USDA study documenting positive impact of the programs.
And now they’re all on the block, Hoefner says. The issue is that these programs won mandatory funding in the 2008 farm bill, but will lose that status on Sept. 30. If Congress does manage to pass a new farm bill by the deadline, there will be strong push to kill the programs in the name of fiscal rectitude. (GOP stalwarts like ag committee member Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) are already taking aim at Know Your Farmer.) And if Congress fails to put together a new farm bill and instead temporarily extends the old one, the programs will likely languish unfunded, stripped of their “mandatory” status. And if that happens, it will be extremely difficult to revive fuding for them when Congress finally does get around to passing a new farm bill.
“The second half of April could determine whether or not we’ll have government support for sustainable farm and food programs for the next five years,” Hoefner said.
• Big Ag continues to get support for monster corn and soy crops. Large commodity growers will take a nominal hit in the next farm bill. For years, farmers in a few chosen crops—corn, soy, cotton, etc.—have received $5 billion per year in so-called “direct payments” based on the acreage under production. In order to receive direct payments, farmers had to sign so called “conservation-compliance” agreements, which obligated them to create conservation plans for highly erodible land and agree not to drain wetlands for planting. The conservation-compliance agreements were far from perfect, Hoefner says, but they did help slow soil erosion in the Corn Belt for years.
In the next farm bill, direct payments will almost certainly be scrapped, Hoefner says, and replaced by a revenue-insurance scheme that is projected to cost $3.5 billion per year, saving taxpayers $1.5 billion per year. Sounds like a step forward, right? Wrong. First of all, in current negotiations, there is no conservation-compliance requirement for revenue insurance—meaning that farmers will have incentive to drain wetlands to grow crops, as well as expand crops onto erosion-prone land. Moreover, the new scheme will likely insure prices at high levels—meaning that relatively small price dips could cost taxpayers serious money, potentially wiping out that promised $1.5 billion in savings.
The switch to revenue insurance, Hoefner says, will “further reduce the risk of putting the pedal to the metal on commodity production, [with] no incentive whatsoever to diversify crops or leave any ground unplanted.” All of that, of course, is manna to the companies that supply inputs to industrial-scale farmers: seed and pesticide companies like Monsanto and Syngenta; and to the companies that buy corn and soy and transform them into a range of low-quality, profitable foods.
The picture Hoefner paints is grim. At a time when the public is increasingly demanding a more sustainable and healthy food production system, Congress is in the process of enshrining agribusiness as usual—pinching the pennies that go to sustainable food programs while propping up destructive agriculture tailored to the profit needs of agrochemical companies like Monsanto.