The Farm Bill may seem distant and irrelevant to you, but most likely the last thing you ate was affected by it, as were the meals of the one out of every eight Americans who receive some form of Federal food assistance. You’re probably not a farmer, only about 1% of the population is, but the Farm Bill still matters to you. The Farm Bill was created to provide assistance to farmers, secure the nation’s food supply, and later to provide food security. Created as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933, it sought to ease some of the suffering at the depth of the Great Depression, cruelly amplified by the Dust Bowl. It was a great piece of legislation. It did exactly what governments are supposed to do: stabilize, assist, and protect us. For 80 years it was pretty much renewed every five years without a lot of drama. Now, like so much else, it has fallen victim to the carcinogenic dysfunctional stew of partisan politics. In our increasingly polarized world, eating is one of the few things we still all share. An essential act, it is at its most basic — survival. When at its best — it provides enjoyment and connectedness. Food provides an overlapping commonality, regardless of race, religion, location, or political party. Now this most basic necessity is being held hostage by Big Ag’s agenda, special interests, and the directed erosion of principles to drive corporate profit. It’s no wonder that collectively we have a gnawing worry that the center will not hold. When government waivers on the basics of life, the tremors weaken the foundation of society.
This Farm Bill is being met by resistance from multiple fronts because it has some notable and controversial changes in it. The Farm Bill has historically been a bipartisan omnibus spending bill, that not only supports farmers but provides important social safety nets. The version being presented now aggressively expands loopholes for mega-farms, cuts funding for rural development programs, cuts conservation funding while weakening environmental protections, helping to shield CAFO’s and factory farms. It also cuts assistance to farmers markets, support for local and regional food systems, local food promotion programs, value-added producer grants, as well as support for new farmers, minority and veteran farmers. It includes reduction in food stamps (SNAP — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), cuts assistance for farmers converting to organic, trims the National Organic cost share program, farm subsidies, crop insurance subsidies for biofuels, and unexpectedly and quite boldly looks to weaken USDA organic standards to allow new pesticides and GMO’s. Despite all these controversial and overtly bias invocations for Big Ag, it was a larger immigration battle between conservative and moderate factions of the GOP which ultimately derailed the bill in May.
An unexpected and worrisome development is the dilutive attack on the USDA Organic standards. This bill proposes to rollback standards to allow toxic pesticides and GMO’s (Genetically Modified Organisms). It’s a purposeful push to benefit large chemical companies and big agribusiness by watering down the standards of organic. It allows them to capture gross margin, while seriously undermining Organic credibility and destroying consumer trust. Organic has been a bright spot for farmers by providing growth and higher margins for several decades. The success of the organic program depends upon the Organic seal, and consumer faith in that seal. It’s a seal consumers have come to trust, and have been willing to pay a premium for, part of which is passed through to the farmers, incentivizing best practices and creating opportunity. Organic is the fastest growing sector of the food industry because it has increasingly become an island of clarity in a sea of misleading marketing, ambiguous generalities, and shockingly disturbing revelations. Each new report, study, book, and documentary over the last two decades has increasingly driven consumers to ask how, where, and who grew what I am eating, and can I trust it? This initiative purposefully looks to cloud one of those answers.
The Organic Foods Production Act was passed in 1990, and it allowed the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to protect the nascent movement. NOSB is democracy at work, composed of citizen volunteers who listen and review research by farmers, scientists, and environmentalists. This work is done in the full sunlight and complete transparency of public hearings, resulting in informed public discourse and scientific research vetted through practical hands-on field experience. It upholds standards of pest and weed control, fertilization, seed type, and a host of other practices to defend and act in accordance with what they perceive to be best practices, or in the best interest of organic farmers and consumers. Regardless of how you feel about organic, the co-option and corruption of what many people have worked hard for just to weaken and allow well positioned large business to profit from is reprehensible, and further erodes our collective faith in government. You don’t need to endorse organic, or even believe that it presents a better option, but it needs to be allowed to exist without being purposefully diluted at the behest of K Street lobbyists.
Another recent bright spot in agriculture has been the reawakening of a direct connection between consumer and farmer. The clearest example has been the growth of Farmers Markets. As that awareness has grown so has the scope of the movement. It now includes a network of local and regional aggregation and distribution support, rural and urban initiatives, farmer trainings, and assistance for farmers converting to organic. Funding and support for many of these programs, which have opened and created new sales channels for farmers are at risk of being partially or fully de-funded.
There is also a proposal in this Farm Bill which would eliminate funding for one of the country’s largest conservation programs, the Conservation Stewardship Program. This step runs parallel with other steps that protect CAFO’s and factory farms and their environmentally harmful practices. It will subsidize their production costs, and improve their profitability while socializing the environmental costs. These changes would further un-level a playing field on which small farmers already find themselves at a competitive disadvantage, while making it easier to pollute rural communities and waterways.
Finally, the bill looks to reduce SNAP benefits. 42 million Americans received SNAP benefits last year, and unlike the commonly pushed stereotype of food stamps being for urban minorities, the reality is that they’re a vital safety net for Americans everywhere. Republican and Democratic constituents of all ages need assistance, from school lunch subsidies to parts of Meals on Wheels funding. It would take food out of the mouths of the most vulnerable children and elderly, and the 16% of rural households and 13% of urban households that receive SNAP benefits. The current version of the #FarmBill2018 would result in over 1 million families losing SNAP assistance. The bill had never been voted down prior to 2013, and last month it was voted down for a second time. The Farm Bill which failed to pass in May is scheduled for a re-vote in June.
Whether you walk through a pasture, down a concrete sidewalk, or crawl along a suburban commute, we all eat, and we’re all impacted by the Farm Bill. The proposed version of this bill benefits special interests at the expense of farmers, eaters, and the environment. This should plant the seed to get informed, form an opinion, and act.
Food for thought.