Authors: Adrien Salazar | Intern, Education & Outreach
You might not think the US Farm Bill has anything to do with you, especially since only 2% of Americans actually farm for a living today. But the Farm Bill affects all of us and our right to have clean, healthy food on our tables.
The Farm Bill was introduced in 1933 as a temporary measure to help farmers during the Great Depression. Now renewed about every five years, it sets funding for food and agricultural programs and many USDA activities. The current Farm Bill passed in 2008 and expires in 2012. This next bill poses major challenges, but if we get involved, it could be an opportunity to make serious changes in food and farms.
Due to the intense debates around the US federal budget this year, the next Farm Bill faces pressure to reduce and eliminate programs. If we get involved to shape the bill now, we can affect substantial reforms and shift the national conversation towards healthy sustainably-produced food.
The Farm Bill impacts what food you eat, where it comes from, how it gets to you, how it’s grown, and where the future of our environment is going. Here are five key ways the Farm Bill will impact you.
1. Farm subsidies that encourage harmful large-scale farming practices impact your access to healthy, sustainably-produced food.
About $5 billion a year goes to subsidy programs for products like corn, rice, cotton, and wheat. Subsidies are direct payments to a specific group of crops, paid regardless of how much is actually grown. More money is granted to larger farms, so these subsidies incentivize large-scale, fertilizer, and pesticide intensive farming. Payments go out to a small selection of commodities and only a tiny fraction goes to fruit and vegetable growers. These subsidies could be targeted for major cuts, but previous farm bills have shown that well-organized lobbies have successfully defended these programs.
If individuals and communities get involved we can advocate to reprioritize national support for small-scale, local, urban and rural agriculture, and access to sustainably-produced food.
2. Cuts to inequitable subsidies could put more money in community programs and sustainable agriculture.
Subsidy payments are unequally distributed among farmers. Sixty-two percent of American farmers don’t get subsidy payments. From 1995-2010 the largest and wealthiest 10% of farms received 74% of the subsidies. As congress struggles to balance the federal budget while commodity farms thrive at historic levels, these inefficient and unequally distributed funds could be seriously reformed for the first time. Funding could be reduced, freeing up much needed monies to help balance the US budget and save other social service programs being targeted for cuts. We could even increase investment in conservation, nutrition, and clean and renewable energy for our communities.
But without taking action we could see these inefficient and inequitable subsidies continue putting billions of dollars into the hands of a wealthy few every year.
3. The Farm Bill helps expand food access and provides food security to our families, neighbors, and communities most in need.
More than two-thirds of funding in the Farm Bill goes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) and other nutrition programs. In the middle of an economic crisis this program helps keep many families from going hungry. Enrollment in food stamps has increased 10.4% between 2010 and 2011, and about 44.5 million Americans are currently enrolled. The House 2012 Budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) proposes to cut $127 billion from food stamps over the next ten years. The final Farm Bill will likely target SNAP and other food programs for major cuts.
Without action, we can expect food access for Americans to be constricted. If we get involved we can let congress know that we need SNAP to maintain food access for families all over the country.
4. Your access to healthy food in your neighborhood, like fruit and vegetables, will be impacted.
A portion of Farm Bill funding also goes to programs like healthy food education, school gardens, and farmer’s market programs. While many of these programs just began with the 2008 Farm Bill, they are also likely to be targeted for cuts and we could see a real reduction in the availability of healthy food in our communities.
We can take action not just to defend but also to expand support for these local-scale programs that bring healthy food directly into our neighborhoods.
5. Your access to a healthy, natural American landscape will be impacted.
The Farm Bill is the largest source of federal funding for conservation in the US, granting nearly $35 billion since 1995 for land conservation. Conservation programs in the Farm Bill provide incentives for farmers and ranchers to conserve land, protect water resources, and engage in sustainable farming practices. These programs have helped conserve hundreds of thousands of acres. But conservation programs are already in danger. The House appropriations bill for 2012 proposes $1 billion in cuts to these programs on top of half a billion dollars already cut in 2011.
Congress and the Obama Administration have shown a willingness to target conservation funding even before the Farm Bill has been drafted, signaling that billions could be taken away from these programs in the future. If we stay informed and take action, we can let the government know that conservation of land, water, and other resources is important for us and for generations to come.
The future of food and farms in America
The next Farm Bill will follow the heels of an intense debate around the Federal budget and many portions of the bill will be targeted for cuts. We can expect a leaner Farm Bill, but we can have a say in where and how cuts will happen.
If we don’t take action we could face a reduced bill with reductions to programs that bring healthy food in our communities, while inequitable farm subsidies are maintained. Yet our current economic crisis creates an opportunity for us to rethink our priorities around food.
With action, we can urge congress to reform subsidy programs and deepen our national commitment to conservation and healthy food access. We can let congress know that with the next Farm Bill we can make a commitment to Americans to keep healthy, sustainably produced food in our neighborhoods and on our tables.