The Farm Bill
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The Farm Bill

A Citizen's Guide

Daniel Imhoff, Christina Badaracco

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eBook - ePub

The Farm Bill

A Citizen's Guide

Daniel Imhoff, Christina Badaracco

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About This Book

The farm bill is one of the most important pieces of legislation the American president signs. Negotiated every five to seven years, it has tremendous implications for food production, nutrition assistance, habitat conservation, international trade, and much more. Yet at nearly 1, 000 pages, it is difficult to understand for policymakers, let alone citizens. In this primer, Dan Imhoff and Christina Badaracco translate all the "legalese" and political jargon into an accessible, graphics-rich 200 pages.Readers will learn the basic elements of the bill, its origins and history, and perhaps most importantly, the battles that will determine the direction of food policy in the coming years. The authors trace how the legislation has evolved, from its first incarnation during the Great Depression, to today, when America has become the world's leading agricultural powerhouse. They explain the three main components of the bill—farm subsidies, food stamps or SNAP, and conservation programs—as well as how crucial public policies are changing.With a new farm bill just signed into law, we all need to understand the implications of food policy. What's the impact of crop insurance? How does SNAP actually work? What would it take to create a healthier, more sustainable food system? These are questions that affect not only farmers, but everyone who eats. If you care about the answers, The Farm Bill is your guide.

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Island Press



1. What Is the Farm Bill?

The path to reform ultimately leads to government policy. As the adage says, we reap what we sow, and in that regard there may be nothing more important than the Farm Bill.
GOVERNMENTS HAVE LONG PLAYED a role in food systems. Thousands of years ago, the stockpiles in palace granaries were distributed during times of need. Such policies may have been more a matter of self-preservation than altruism; passing out free bread, rice, or other staples goes a long way toward preempting rebellion.
Today, most countries accept that governments need to be involved in food production and hunger prevention. Just as a strong defense is regarded as national security, a diverse and well-developed agriculture is regarded as food security. In the United States, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with this dual mission: support the creation of an abundant food supply and ensure that all citizens receive basic nutrition. A primary mechanism for achieving this mission is federal legislation passed every five to seven years known as the Farm Bill.
Unlike during the Great Depression, when the Farm Bill was first written, the United States is no longer a country interlaced with millions of small, diversified family farms set amid vibrant rural communities. Today the United States is the world’s leading industrial agriculture powerhouse, but a large share of production has shifted to nonfamily farms and larger family farms. About 1 percent of US farms are nonfamily farms that account for 10 percent of agricultural production. Large-scale and mid-sized family farms made up 9 percent of all US farms in 2016 but accounted for 60 percent of the value of US agricultural production. Small-scale family operations (less than $350,000 gross cash farm income) accounted for only 26 percent of production but represented 90 percent of US farms.1
Feeding more than 320 million citizens is just one part of the contemporary job assignment. The American farmer is also expected to help counter the mounting trade deficit and feed the rest of the world (or so we are told) with a steady stream of exports. Then there’s the additional task of supplying feedstock for ethanol, bioplastics, and other products used as replacements for fossil fuels.
To promote this massive farm output, the government has embedded complex subsidies in various sections of the nearly 1,000-page Farm Bill. Land payments, crop insurance, research assistance, export marketing, and many other programs serve to maintain an ample supply of certain foods and commodity crops. The scale of government intervention is such that talk of “free markets” is merely rhetorical. Conventional farmers stay afloat by farming the system rather than growing what might best serve their particular tract of land for the long term or provide for more well-rounded, healthy diets. If the government removes all financial risks from growing corn, offers generous tax breaks to ethanol producers, and writes six-figure checks to feedlot operators, for example, farmers will plant corn and lots of it—even when the real winners are the agribusinesses and food manufacturers that buy it.
This scenario plays out each spring during what’s called the fight for dirt, when American farmers decide how much land to devote to each commodity crop. Corn wins easily and is grown on upward of 90 million acres of farmland, an area roughly the size of the entire state of Montana. Figure 1 highlights many of the effects of this massive production.
Then, because American farmers export 40 percent of the world’s corn and almost 40 percent of the soybeans, these choices ripple across global commodity markets.2 Farmers who grow corn, cotton, wheat, rice, or soybeans in countries without strong subsidy programs can be severely disadvantaged. According to Tufts University agricultural researcher Timothy Wise, the dumping of subsidized US corn on the Mexican market, for instance, cost Mexico’s farmers as much as $200 per acre per year from the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 until 2010.3 An estimated 2.3 million small farmers in Mexico were forced to look for other work in the burgeoning maquiladoras—manufacturing factories and sweatshops of US corporations in cities like Juarez and Matamoros—or in fields, orchards, vineyards, slaughter plants, and other sectors across the border to the north. At the same time, subsidization of corn for ethanol drove up prices of corn exports in Mexico, increasing food prices and resulting in food insecurity. Although Mexico grows predominantly white (“food”) corn that is distinct from American yellow (“field”) corn, their prices are closely correlated.4 Rising prices prevented further dumping in subsequent years, but recent evidence suggests that low prices are again driving US dumping in export markets.5
Massive farm worker migration is just one of the social costs of the government subsidizing an oversupply of corn. Others are harder to measure. For instance, most corn that American farmers grow isn’t eaten by people. Instead, it is fed to animals in livestock warehouses and feedlots. It is fermented into ethanol (with the residual grains fed to animals) or turned into sweeteners and hundreds of other manufactured food ingredients. It contributes to a food system that relies heavily on farm chemicals, processing, packaging, and fossil fuels.
The irony is that all this work conflicts with the government’s other major tasks in overseeing the food system: establishing healthy dietary guidelines and doling out nutrition assistance to those who are hungry. It might seem that subsidizing an industrial food system would make food inexpensive and abundant for everyone. The reality, however, is that enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly called food stamps), hit an all-time high of almost 48 million participants in 2013.6 In 2016, more than 41.2 million people were living in “food-insecure” households, implying that they lacked consistent and sufficient food for active, healthy lives.7
Figure 1
Taxpayer Subsidies. Direct payments and crop insurance totaling nearly $2.4 billion helped make corn the predominant crop in 2014. Many small- and medium-sized farmers depend on subsides to survive while large operators use subsidies to get bigger.
Corn Surpluses. 15.1 billion bushels were produced on more than 86 million acres in 2016. This created a surplus stock of 2.1 billion bushels. Very little of the corn is actually fed directly to humans. Most goes to animal feed or is processed into starches, corn oil, sweeteners, or ethanol for our gas tanks.
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. Confinement facilities, largely made possible and profitable through the low costs of subsidized feed, house tens of thousands of hogs, chickens, or cattle. Heavy concentrations of animal wastes, odor pollution, reliance on antibiotics, and dangerous workplaces are just a few of the many health concerns.
Food Deserts. Monoculture specialization of corn and other grains for export is the reason we see “so much agriculture, so little food” in farming areas. Impoverished inner-city areas, where access to supermarkets or farmers markets is limited or nonexistent, also become food deserts.
Dead Zones. Nutrient and chemical runoff from farms in the Corn Belt flow through the Mississippi River watershed and have created a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, decimating fish and other marine life. There are dozens of other agriculturally induced hypoxic zones, including in the Chesapeake Bay.
Food Miles. Processed foods now travel more than 1,300 miles and fresh produce travels more than 1,500 miles from farm to table. California, Florida, and a number of other states (and a growing number of countries) supply the nation’s supermarkets with fruits and vegetables. Relatively little of this specialty crop production is supported by federal programs.
Immigration. After the implementation of NAFTA in 1994, an estimated 1 .3 to 2.3 million Mexican campesinos were forced to leave their lands and move elsewhere in Mexico or in the US to attain employment. Subsidized US corn, combined with the NAFTA trade agreement, had a catastrophic effect on Mexican farmers.
Rural Exodus. The farmer replacement rate has fallen as the number of beginning farmers replacing aging farmers has decreased by more than 23% in the last five years. Farmers are now 17 years older than the average American worker, and we have more farmers over the age of 75 than between 35 and 44. Many wonder if the United States may permanently lose the skills and productive farmland to remain an agricultural leader.
Obesity Crisis. The proportion of Americans who are overweight or obese climbed to 70.7% in 2014 and the child obesity rate has more than tripled since the 1970s (now at 17%). Lack of physical activity and poor nutrition—linked to subsidized and super-sized processed foods high in sugar, fat, and sodium—lie at the root of the epidemic.
What’s more, all the mountains of cheap food haven’t made us healthy, either. Indeed, our epidemic of obesity hits the poor hardest. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—the foods most recommended by USDA dietary guidelines—are largely ignored by Farm Bill policies. We have become overeaters of the wrong things, and many critics say that Farm Bill policies are at least partially at fault and can play a dynamic role in reversing this crisis.
Today’s global headlines reflect crops unable to adapt to rising temperatures, spiking health costs due to high obesity rates, food shortages in certain areas of the world, and disease outbreaks emanating from ever-larger meat-, milk-, and egg-producing animal factories. The number of people affected, and worried, about these problems is growing, and, increasingly, they are realizing that the path to reform ultimately leads to gover...

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