Today the bipartisan Agriculture Committee begins a mark-up session to reach consensus on the 2012 Farm Bill, a draft of which was released last Friday. The Senate and House of Representatives have proposed slightly different bills, and the next two days will be spent negotiating certain provisions and cuts to the existing farming legislature.
The draft was released by the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), and ranking member Pat Roberts (R., Kan.). Stabenow, as well as big agribusiness media, have already begun to extol the biggest change in this latest version of the Farm Bill: an end to direct payments. In the past farmers have had to sign “conservation-compliance” agreements—basically contracts that paid the farmer to create conservation plans for areas of high erosion and to abstain from draining wetlands for planting.
Proponents of the bill are lauding the elimination of direct payments because it will contribute to the $23 billion deficit reduction the bill is purported to bring. However, the revenue-insurance plan currently proposed to replace the direct payments does not include a conservation-compliance component, meaning farmers will no longer have an incentive to preserve erodible areas and wetlands. Furthermore, as Tom Philpott of Mother Jones points out, the replacement provisions will most likely insure prices, costing taxpayers more and negating some of the savings.
The Environmental Working Group responded to the release of the bill with their own statement asserting that the bill will “do more harm than good.” The Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources of EWG, Craig Cox, stated:
It needlessly sacrifices conservation and feeding assistance programs to finance unlimited insurance subsidies and a new entitlement program for highly profitable farm businesses. Rather than simply ending the widely discredited direct payment program, the Senate Agriculture Committee has created an expensive new entitlement program that guarantees most of the income of farm businesses already enjoying record profits. Replacing direct payments with a revenue guarantee program is a cynical game of bait-and-switch that should be rejected by Congress.
Beyond the direct payment problem, the new version of the bill consolidates the 23 existing conservation programs into just 13, and cuts $180 billion from the program budgets over the next ten years. A whopping $134 billion of that will be cut from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as the food stamp program. This compounds the potential adverse environmental effects of the bill by adding a human component: according to the USDA [PDF], SNAP benefits led to a 4.4% decline in poverty between 2000 and 2009. Significant budget cuts will no doubt negatively affect the 50 million Americans currently relying on food stamps.
Fortunately, several Good Food Movement organizations have proposed alternative versions for the updated legislation. The National Wildlife Federation, EWG, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the American Farmland Trust have all suggested provisions to protect natural resources and ensure comprehensive availability of healthy food.
The next few days are crucial in determining the future of agriculture in this country. The 2012 Farm Bill will illuminate whose voices are heeded in the current government—the calls of the citizens or the demands of Big Ag.
Image Source Andrew Stawarz