Source of image: Don Keirstead, Riparian Buffer, Water Quality Photos, USDA NRCS, http://www.nrcs.usda.
Every five years, Congress rewrites the “Farm Bill”, a key piece of legislation that impacts our food, our soil and water quality, our health, and our wallets.
The Missouri Coalition for the Environment wants to help create a better “Farm Bill”, since it influences many aspects of our lives. From our stomachs to our taxes, it defines agricultural, environmental, and governmental practices. We want to create a better system that offers food security, fair markets, environmental stability, and finally, a stronger taxpayer voice.
The “Farm Bill” is a federal omnibus bill that covers a variety of food and farm-related concerns, and provides funding and support for various federal programs. Some of these programs directly affect agriculture, such as crop insurance, crop subsidies, and incentive programs for soil conservation practices. Other programs are indirectly related to agriculture, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP (formerly the Food Stamp Program) and various programs related to forestry, rural development, biofuel production, and food safety. The Farm Bill also influences the type of crops farmers produce, whether farmers choose to implement conservation practices on their land, the amount of financial support available to low income families to purchase food, and the type and price of food found on our grocer’s shelves.
The most recent Farm Bill, the “Agricultural Act of 2014,” is composed of the following twelve Titles, listed in order: Commodity, Conservation, Trade, Nutrition, Credit, Rural Development, Research, Forestry, Energy, Horticulture, Crop Insurance, and Miscellaneous. Some of the programs within each Title are mandatory programs that must be renewed with each Farm Bill; others do not, and are discretionary programs that can be approved or repealed each year. In FY2014, of the $145 billion annual federal budget for agricultural-related programs, $125 billion was for mandatory Farm Bill programs, but only $21 billion was for discretionary programs, inside and outside the farm bill. Read more about the budget here.
One important process to consider in relation to the Farm Bill budget is budget reconciliation, explained well here. Budget reconciliation is an optional congressional procedure used primarily as a means of reducing government spending for mandatory programs. It can be used to change current law to bring revenue and spending levels in-line with the policies of the budget resolution. When the House and Senate Budget Committees include reconciliation language in their annual budget resolution, this language instructs authorizing committees to cut a certain amount of money from programs with direct spending in their juristiction. Budget resolutions can include assumptions about cuts to mandatory programs, but these "only have immediate practical relevance if budget reconciliation directives are included that force changes to be made. Otherwise they are just messaging points."
The funding distribution from recent farm bills has consistently prioritized large-scale production of crops used for livestock feed, processed foods, and ethanol, cornerstones of our agro-industrial complex. The Title I Commodity also provides monetary assistance to farmers producing commodity crops. This assistance program creates a financial disincentive to grow healthier and useful foods. The 2007 U.S Census of Agriculture estimated that less than 3.3% of the nation’s cropland was used for fruits and vegetables that year, compared to 3% in 2002. Even Missouri has soil that is very productive for fruits and vegetables, but this farmland is not currently being used for more efficacious agricultural practices or handled with environmental stewardship.
“Cash crops” such as corn, soybean, wheat, rice and cotton are subsequently used to mass-produce processed, nutrient-deficient foods like Twinkies, Coca Cola, hot dogs, salad dressings, and even vitamins at lower rates and more availability than fresh foods. Consequently, Americans have faced skyrocketing rates of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related health problems. These problems are more severe in marginalized communities of color and for low-income vulnerable populations.
In addition to the disincentives in the Farm Bill to produce fruits and vegetables, the Commodity Title and Crop Insurance Title discourage sustainable agriculture practices. Farmers are not required to utilize soil conservation practices as a condition for receiving payments under their insurance policies in the event of a natural disaster causing losses in revenue or yield, so they try to maximize their yield of commodity crops by planting “fence row to fence row.” This negatively impacts long-term agricultural productivity by removing natural protections against soil erosion and degradation.
If more fruit and vegetable production is subsidized in place of commodity production, it is likely that small farmers who currently rely on Farm Bill assistance programs for their income will shift to fruit and vegetable production. Shifting agriculture priorities away from commodity crop monocultures and emphasizing conservative farming techniques and fruit and vegetable production would likely provide greater opportunity for many Americans to meet the USDA recommended daily requirements of each food group. Ultimately it is up to the consumer, but with the increased access to fruits and vegetable production that would likely result from the proposed modifications to SNAP, the modifications would very likely have a positive impact on America’s health.
The Farm Bill has potential to be a sustainable and healthy food bill if it prioritizes programs that promote public health, soil conservation practices, and greater access to healthy food. To keep update on the current ”Farm Bill” information, subscribe to our e-alerts. Join MCE in the fight to better our food industry and environment.
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