Nov 9, 2011

Fast Farm Bill for Fast Food Nation

By Mary Fund

It is anyone’s guess what will happen to Farm Bill programs in the budget deficit work now underway (or to the rest of the federal budget for that matter).

We have the Joint Select Committee on Budget Deficit (also known as the Super Committee) charged with coming up with $1.2 trillion in government wide cuts by Thanksgiving. And we have the Agricultural Appropriations Committee attempting to pass a budget for FY 2012, which started October 1. But it is probably safe to say that Big Ag’s lobbyists are working overtime to put a deficit-cutting spin on protecting their interests, while maintaining as much funding as possible.

On October 17, Senate and House Agriculture Committee leadership sent a letter to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction proposing a $23 billion cut in mandatory farm bill spending over the next decade- cuts that will begin in FY 2013. By offering the $23 billion in cuts, the Agriculture Committees expect that they will be able to craft the cuts to the farm bill themselves, rather than leave it to the Super Committee. However, the Agriculture Committee proposal for how they envision those $23 billion in cuts is needed by November 1- just two weeks from the day the letter was sent to the Super Committee.

Farm Bills are rewritten about every five years—with the recent ones taking over a year of hearings, circulated bill drafts, and back room scrambling to craft. But it may be that the only thing left in the process is the back room scrambling. Public input, debate, and analysis and careful recrafting have been thrown out the window.

If the Super Committee accepts the proposal, then the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have an extremely short amount of time to develop the policies and programs that go along with the cuts. Staff of both Agriculture Committees are working around the clock to put that together. And that work is happening behind closed doors, and involves mostly the staff of the committee chairs and ranking members. The Super Committee could still decide to accept, reject, or change the proposal offered to them. And the Super Committee could also fail to come up with a plan overall, leading to across the board cuts to all federal programs including Medicare and defense.

With limited agricultural influence on the super Committee, Agriculture is understandably nervous. About $15 billion of the $23 billion in ag cuts are expected to come from commodity program subsidies, with the rest to come from conservation and nutrition assistance to low-income families.

Farm organizations, commodity groups, and agricultural industry groups are scrambling to hang onto as much as they can, whether it be old style commodity program payments, now called “revenue insurance”, or reworked crop insurance. Sustainable ag groups champion conservation, payment limitations, beginning farmer programs, rural development, and local/regional food systems as a way to protect long term food production, provide economic opportunities, and save money. But as the din from ag and commodity groups increases and the back room negotiations continue, it sounds like we will end up with a farm bill that continues to benefit a narrow range of interests supporting a highly industrial, unsustainable system of production, at the cost of conservation, rural communities, opportunities for new and beginning farmers, and a healthier food system.

Although little has come out from behind the closed doors, “stream-lining, combining, and cutting” are all ideas being floated. And they all aim more at tweaking the corn-bean agriculture we have, than for the thoughtful development of the diversified, more complex food and farm system we need.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition reports that none of the proposals on the table thus far for restructuring commodity crop or crop insurance titles of the farm bill include reform of payment limitation provisions. The proposals apparently still do not address the loopholes that allow single farms to collect nearly unlimited subsidies.

NSAC also points out that crop insurance subsidies- the 60 percent of farm insurance premiums paid by the taxpayer- have no limit at all. (Crop insurance subsidies have exceeded commodity program payments in recent years.)

At a minimum, Congress should insist that any deficit reduction bill that cuts farm spending should include a hard cap on subsidies. Senators Grassley (R-IA) and Johnson (D-SD) sent their own letter to the Super Committee arguing this very point, which is something that can be added to either the House-Senate Ag Committees proposal or to the Super Committee’s version. Also, cutting nutrition assistance to low income families is not going to go over very well at a time when more families find themselves in need.

As for FY 2012 and agricultural appropriations, the Senate is expected to send their version to the House for a conference committee vote the first full week of November.

While this is clearly not the normal farm bill debate year, it is one that will impact us far into the future. It may give new meaning to the old adage, “haste makes waste” which ironically is one of the things they are trying to address.

For timely updates on farm bill developments, visit the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition website at

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