Complexity be damned: the Farm Bill explained

A look at what's at stake if it expires this Friday

By Alexa Schirtzinger

One of America’s bulkiest and most confusing pieces of legislation—also known as the farm bill—will expire April 18. That’s in two days. If Congress can’t agree on a new bill that doesn’t require tax increases before then, the U.S. will either revert to the only other permanent farm legislation it has in place, a bare-bones act from 1949, or wait until a new bill can be drafted next year.

Less than one percent of Americans claim farming as their primary occupation, according to the EPA, but indirectly the farm bill profoundly affects the entire country’s food supply, land use, water resources, and air quality. According to Molly Norton, the food justice coordinator at Just Food, a New York-based nonprofit, “There’s nothing you put in your mouth that isn’t dictated by farm policy."

The U.S. got its first “farm bill” in 1933 in the form of a relief package that offered government payments to farmers bankrupted by the Great Depression. Subsequent bills expanded those subsidies, and today, most farm-related legislation is lumped into one lumbering omnibus-type bill that’s usually renewed every five to seven years. While each year’s bill receives an official title, the collective farm legislature is generally referred to as the farm bill.

Currently two versions of the 2007 Farm Bill—one in the House and a second in the Senate—are under debate. Despite differences in programs and distribution of funding, both initially allotted roughly $286 billion in spending over the next five years. In February, however, both arms of Congress agreed to add another $10 billion for various programs to their respective bills, which elicited a promise from President Bush to veto any bill with extra spending derived from tax hikes. That has sent legislators scrambling to find the $10 billion, even as they debate how it should be spent – and everyone seems to have an opinion.

Take Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana), chair of the Senate Finance Committee. In March, Baucus said he wouldn’t help the farm bill pass unless $5 billion of the extra spending went to a “permanent disaster program,” a bailout package for farmers who lose money in natural disasters. It’s a popular program in drought-prone Montana, notes Steph Larsen, acting policy director of the Community Food Security Coalition, a Washington, D.C. advocacy group—and Baucus is up for reelection this year. But Baucus’ program has provoked consternation among lawmakers like Representative Charlie Rangel (D-New York) from Harlem who would rather see the money spent on food stamps. Amid all the confusion—Larsen calls the current farm bill process the “most bizarre” yet—the bill received a second extension, which brings us to this Friday.

An even thornier question then where the extra money will go might be where it will come from at a time when the national budget is already strained by debt, recession, and the war in Iraq. To find $10 billion without raising taxes, says Larsen, Congress will have to close loopholes and cut other programs – and even that might not be enough to get them there.

The farm bill is made up of ten “titles” ranging from forestry and energy to credit and commodities. The commodities title, one of the oldest, biggest sections, includes farm subsidies, of which almost 75 percent go to the top 10 percent of rural landowners, many of whom don’t actually farm. Despite muted public outrage over rich agribusiness getting richer from taxpayers’ money, Larsen says, nothing in the commodities title is changing this year.

Bigger still is the nutrition title, which accounts for over half of total farm bill spending ($178 billion between 2002 and 2007), most of which goes to food stamp and emergency food programs. Both House and Senate versions of the proposed farm bill would increase funding for nutrition, and for the first time food stamps will be automatically adjusted to account for inflation. But even more money might be necessary, especially if food prices keep rising.

The conservation title is a newer addition to the farm bill that has gained traction (and funds) since its debut in 1985 and includes the Conservation Security Program (CSP), which “awards farmers for good, environmentally sound farming practices,” says Annette Higby, policy committee coordinator for the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture. The 2007 bill also includes some “important gains for organic agriculture,” Higby says, and the fact that such programsand others promoting biofuels and renewable energyexist at all is a step in the right direction. But if Baucus’ disaster program is to pass, proposed funding for the conservation title could take a big hit.

“There are definitely some good things in this bill,” admits Larsen. “But fundamentally, from a big picture, I’m not sure this bill represents the direction that food and farming should be going.” The concept of siphoning money out of the conservation title to fund a disaster program begs the question of whether the farm bill is more about slapping Band-Aids on problems – particularly environmental ones – or about preventing them before they happen.

Still, Larsen is holding out hope for improvement. “There are [people] who think Bush should veto [the farm bill],” she says. But if that happens, “All the work we’ve done just gets slammed, and the things we have been able to gain in 2008 don’t come to fruition. If they extend it for a year, we’ll have a new congress, a new administration, and that might be a better scenario for getting a more forward-looking bill.” For a bill that has so much to do with what we eat, where it comes from, and how our collective resources are usedlet’s hope Congress can agree to a spending scheme that truly is forward-looking.

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