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Margaret Reeves

A Farm Bill at long last

Phew! After a long, arduous two-and-a-half year process, we finally have a Farm Bill. The bill, approved recently in both the House and Senate, now goes to President Obama for near-certain approval. Unfortunately, as we reported last week after the House vote, the new law is a real mixed bag.

On the plus side, support is up for local and regional food systems; farmers must conserve soil and water if they want help paying for crop insurance; and more insurance options are now available for organic farmers. On the minus side, food stamp funding was slashed; Congress failed miserably to rein in huge payments to millionaire farmers; and conservation funding was reduced for the first time since the program began in 1985.

Ariane Lotti of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), whom we've been working closely with throughout this process, opines:

“We do not endorse the process that has led to completion of this farm bill nor do we think it represents the 21st century policy we need to support a sustainable farm and food system. However, given . . . the importance of renewing funding for the most innovative programs for the future of agriculture, we support moving forward but will continue to work for the real reform this bill lacks.”

What we fought for

Throughout the long process, PAN joined forces with many organizations and individuals around the country who worked tirelessly to press for a full, fair Farm Bill — despite the fact that priorities may not have entirely coincided. Our goal has been to make at least some progress toward the long term changes we all seek.

We knew it would be an uphill battle given the entrenched, extremely conservative Congress and the hefty political influence of the Big 6 and other industrial agriculture interests.

We knew it would be an uphill battle given the hefty political influence of industrial agriculture.

Our common, overarching goals, as expressed by NSAC's Ferd Hoefner in a recent Civil Eats piece were: (1) to fund and grow innovative sustainable farm and food programs that build an alternative food system, and (2) to make the necessary reforms to farm subsidies so that we level the playing field in the short term and make much-needed systemic transformation in the longer term.

What we won

Only a small fraction of this huge $956 billion Farm Bill funds the programs we pushed for: conservation programs, local and regional food systems, support for beginning farmers and  more. Here are a few highlights of what we won:

  • If farmers want government support for crop insurance they must now implement soil and wetland conservation practices. This 'conservation compliance' is something we strongly supported throughout the negotiations.
  • Overall, organic agriculture did well including assistance for certification costs, research, extension and recognition of organic prices for crop insurance.
  • Not only does the bill exclude bad language that would have undermined the Clean Water Act, but the USDA will now need to report on how it intends to manage the risks that pesticides pose to threatened and endangered species.

What we lost

Family farmers, rural communities and 47 million people dependent on the federal food stamp program have suffered huge losses with this Farm Bill. The losses include:

  • The food stamp program, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), was slashed by more than $8 billion.
  • Overall conservation funding decreased for the first time since the program began back in 1985.

Elizabeth Kucinich of the Center for Food Safety summed up the current situation well in a Huffington Post blog:

“The Farm Bill once united the country, but since 2012 it has become highly contentious in Congress. Decades of agriculture policies that promoted industrial agriculture created powerful industries that refused to compromise. On the other hand, the damage caused by industrial agriculture united a diverse coalition demanding safeguards and policies that promote more integrative agricultural practices like organic farming.”

What’s next?

The new bill may be about to become law, but sustainable food and farm advocates still have their work cut out for them. First, we need to ensure that the good things in the bill are implemented effectively — which means that farmers and communities need to understand and use this renewed support. 

We can also work to move the Obama Administration to weigh in and close huge remaining loopholes that allow large, wealthy farms to collect unlimited subsidy payments.

I remain optimistic that the train is moving, albeit very slowly, in the right direction.

Then, we need to start planning for even bigger policy changes for a truly sustainable food and farm system for the future. Despite serious losses this time around, I remain optimistic that the train is moving, albeit very slowly, in the right direction.

I'm encouraged, for example, by the “defeat suffered by monopoly giants” noted by Kucinich, illustrated by the overwhelming and successful opposition to the King Amendment. This controversial measure would have nullified hundreds of state laws on agriculture production — including those addressing animal welfare and food safety.

I believe the wins we did get in the Farm Bill reflect a growing public engagement with food and farming. People increasingly care about their food and how it's grown, and this is moving us — slowly — in a new, healthier and more sustainable direction for agriculture in this country. 

Together, we’re making an impact. Let’s keep it up the good, collaborative work!

Photo credit: Carl Wycoff/Flickr

Picture of Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves

Margaret Reeves is a PAN Senior Scientist with expertise in agroecology and soil ecology. As a long-time farmworker advocate, Margaret serves on the Board of the Equitable Food Initiative and works with partners around the country to ensure worker-protective federal and state policy. Follow @MargaretatPAN

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