Source of image: Don Keirstead, Riparian Buffer, Water Quality Photos, USDA NRCS, http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/nh/newsroom/photos/?cid=stelprdb1254775.
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 “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 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 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that must be renewed with each Farm Bill; others do not, and are discretionary programs that can be approved or repealed each year.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 Fiscal Year (FY) 2014, 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. Mandatory programs are those to which dedicating funding is required by Congress each year, while discretionary programs, though dedicating funds is authorized, are not required to receive a certain amount of funding- or any funding at all. 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 jurisdiction. 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, such as corn, wheat, soy, and cotton, among others. This assistance program creates a financial disincentive to grow healthier and more useful foods, such as fruits and vegetables, which the USDA terms specialty crops. The differences in classifications of commodity and specialty crops are detailed here. The 2012 U.S Census of Agriculture estimated that 3.5% of the nation’s cropland was used for fruits and vegetables that year, compared to 3.3% in 2007 and 3% in 2002. Missouri has soil that is conducive for the growing of fruits and vegetables, but much of this farmland is not currently being used for fruit and vegetable production or being handled with environmental stewardship.
“Commodity 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. Unless growing on land classes as “highly erodible” or “wetland” 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.
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.
It is important to note that, while the Farm Bill allocates funds for various programs over a five-year period, the amount allocated for each year does not always remain the same. The FY 2016 budget introduced large cuts to the Conservation Title, reducing the Conservation and Forestry allocation from $11.2 billion to $10.48 billion through measures such as a 23 per cent reduction in funding for EQIP and a 30 percent reduction to the Conservation Stewardship Program. The FS 2017 budget does not introduce additional cuts, but the Conservation and Forestry allocation holds at $10.57 billion.
Those and further proposed cuts would weaken our first line of defense in preparing for extreme weather events, translate to more water pollution and less wildlife habitat, and drive up long-term costs for environmental mitigation. Reductions to these vital programs would threaten our nation's food security.
In May 2015, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, an organization in which MCE is a member, wrote a letter urging the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee not to reopen the Farm Bill and reduce more funding. MCE signed onto this letter in full support of preserving funding for conservation programs. Read the full letter here.
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 updated on MCE’s work on these issues, subscribe to our food, farm, and water e-alerts. Join MCE in the fight to better our food industry and environment.
Monke, Jim. Budget Issues that Shaped the 2014 Farm Bill. April 10, 2014. Congressional Research Service. http://nationalaglawcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/assets/crs/R42484.pdf
 The Farm Bill Reloaded. March 13, 2015. National Sustainable Agroculture Coalition. http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/the-farm-bill-reloaded/