What’s the Deal with the Farm Bill?

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The farm bill plays a huge role in how Americans get their food, and what they eat. Our latest farm bill, called the “Food, Conservation and Energy Act” was passed in 2008 and expired in 2012, which begs the question: why don’t we have a new one yet?

What is a farm bill, and how often does it need to get passed?

The farm bill is the primary piece of legislation dealing with agriculture and food policy under the purview of the United States federal government. It is typically passed every 5 years by the U.S. Congress, and is expected to cost $500 billion. The most recent farm bill expired in 2012.

What exactly is in the farm bill? 

NPR’s Scott Neuman writes,”The short answer is: a lot. Here’s a partial list:

  • price supports and/or crop insurance for commodity crops
  • conservation programs that affect land, water and soil use
  • agricultural exports and food aid, including humanitarian assistance to other nations
  • food assistance programs for poor Americans
  • direct and guaranteed loans to farmers and ranchers
  • forestry programs managed by the U.S. Forest Service
  • programs promoting renewable fuels such as ethanol
  • crop insurance and disaster assistance”

How has the farm bill worked in the past? 

Marion Nestle breaks down a brief history of the farm bill in the United States. A farm bill (then it was called Agricultural Adjustment Act) was first passed in 1933 as part of the New Deal that dealt primarily with food commodity surpluses. The main issue plaguing farmers during the Great Depression was falling prices due to overproduction. The first farm bill paid farmers to not use part of their land to stabilize prices, and the government also bought any excess crops to safeguard the food supply.

In 1938 the next farm bill was passed with the provision that it should be updated every 5 years.

The nutrition assistance program, commonly referred to as food stamps (the old name) or SNAP was packaged with the farm bill in 1977.

For the most part, farm bills have been passed routinely until recently.

Good Food interviewed Dr. Gary Williams, a professor of Agricultural Economics at Texas A & M University, who told us about the history of the U.S. farm bill.

Why hasn’t a farm bill been passed after it expired? 

The 113th Congress has been famously referred to as the “do-nothing Congress.” Our current legislature with a Republican-controlled House and a Democrat-controlled Senate is on pace to pass fewer bills in a 2 year term since World War II.

Of the only 58 bills Congress passed in 2013, a farm bill was not one of them. The most recent farm bill expired in 2012, and only some provisions have been renewed since then.

In recent years, the farm bill has become increasingly contentious.

Why is the farm bill controversial? 

There are a lot of reasons the farm bill is controversial, but there are two major points of contention. Both the House and the Senate have passed their own versions of the bill, but they have failed to reach a compromise.

SNAP One of the most contentious issues is SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the food assistance program that distributes money for food and groceries to low-income Americans. In recent years the SNAP program expanded under the Bush and Obama administrations in conjunction with the economic crisis. SNAP benefits automatically expired in November which has affected more than 47 million low-income Americans. Republicans in both houses of Congress are largely against SNAP, and they want to pass a farm bill that would further reduce SNAP benefits by $39 billion over 10 years, or $4 billion annually. The Senate’s version of the bill would reduce the program by $400 million annually.

Corn Subsidies– Another issue is that commodity crops like corn, soybeans, rice, cotton, and wheat  earn subsidies, while other fruit and vegetable crops do not. The vast majority of corn is used for cattle feed and processed corn products like high fructose corn syrup. A new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that if Americans ate the USDA recommended amount of vegetables, corn production would decrease significantly, and production of  other fruits and vegetables would increase by 88%.

What is the dairy cliff? 

The dairy cliff refers to a potential spike in milk prices as a result of expired (dare I say curdled?) farm legislation.

According to NPR, “The nation’s farm policy would be legally required to revert back to what’s called permanent law. In the case of dairy, that would be the 1949 farm bill.”

Legislators on both sides of the aisle are working to avert the dairy cliff, but it still remains unclear whether or not it will happen.