The Farm Bill is the colloquial name for the absolutely monstrous package of farm and food policy that Congress passes (or tries to pass) every five years. Though other pieces of legislation may also include similar issues, the consistent timing of the Farm Bill provides the government with a predictable arena to discuss and implement improvements to prevailing food and farm policy.
The Farm Bill is so huge and controversial that the topic could (and does) fill books upon books. In this post I want to just include some background and introduction to this fascinating topic as I currently understand and think about it. In a series of posts following this one, I will cover other important Farm Bill topics in more detail and depth: the politics of the bill, conservation, subsidies, nutrition, etc. Through these posts I will try to explain how the Farm Bill works and why it works this way. Additionally, I’ll try to address how we can use the Farm Bill as a tool to bring about change in the food industry.
The Significance of the Farm Bill
The most recent Farm Bill, the Agricultural Act of 2014 which was passed this February, authorizes an estimated $956 billion in federal spending over the course of ten years. In addition to its nearly trillion dollar cost, the bill covers a huge range of issues in its 959 pages. The Farm Bill includes several seemingly unrelated areas such as forestry, nutrition, agricultural subsidies, conservation, and rural development. Clearly, the Farm Bill has influence outside farmers’ fields, for example on the price of foods, the health of the environment, the wellbeing of rural communities, as well as water and air quality. Additionally, the bill is funded by our tax dollars.
In his book, Food Fight, author Dan Imhoff asserts that “if you eat, pay taxes, care about biodiversity, worry about the quality of school lunches, or notice the loss of farmland and woodlands, you have a personal stake in the Farm Bill.” Though these large social, economic, and environmental issues are hard to see first-hand and may seem far-off, they are no doubt important for the future of our society and the earth we rely on. I like Imhoff’s words “personal stake” as this bill really does impact all our daily lives, even if we don’t realize it or remind ourselves of it. When we fight to bring change to the Farm Bill, it is not about some obscure, distant issues but ones that are close-by and personal like the food we eat and the nature and wildlife we love.
We can look at agriculture itself as the intersection of many environmental issues: water usage, pollution of air and water, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, and land degradation and erosion. In the quest to feed all humans, we will necessarily alter our planet and other creatures. It’s just a matter of doing so in an ethical and sustainable manner, one that keeps the land healthy for future generations and does not deplete our resources or environment. One of the most effective ways to change how we grow food is to start at the policy level. Policy in the Farm Bill has the amazing ability to incentivize environmentally beneficial behavior and disincentivize or prohibit environmentally harmful behavior.
Farmers can only produce in an environmentally sustainable way if it is economically viable. With the funds it has to offer, the Farm Bill can help make these practices possible. The bill therefore has the power to ameliorate or exacerbate all the aforementioned environmental issues depending on how funds are spent and the kind of practices they encourage. So then, how are these 1 trillion Farm Bill dollars spent? Surprisingly, about 79% of the funding from the 2014 bill goes to nutritional programs such as school lunches and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as SNAP or simply food stamps) rather than to agriculture itself. I will talk more about this chunk of the bill in my next post. Second to nutrition are subsidies to agriculture in several different forms (the crop insurance and commodity programs slices in the graph below). These programs together make up about 15% of the total bill. Next in size, the conservation slice includes all the money that helps farmers to adopt any of several conservation-minded practices, such as setting land aside in a conservation reserve for several years. Again, more to come on conservation in future posts! I wrote a 15 page paper for class on conservation in the Farm Bill so I have a lot to say about this topic. Even though they take up a small percent of the bill’s total budget, other programs such as those devoted to research or certified organic practices also receive significant funds.
If you have any questions or opinions you’d like to share, feel free to send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or just comment below. All of the above is my original thought or commonly accepted knowledge, accept where otherwise noted and where credit is given to someone else.
Additionally, I’ve just reviewed four more books, each very different in topic. You can check these book reviews out at the Movies & Books tab and scroll down to get to the books. The newly reviewed books are: Upton Sinclair’s classic The Jungle, Food, Inc. by Peter Pringle (an especially awesome book), Farm Together Now by Amy Franceschini and Daniel Tucker, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.
Thanks for reading,