Weighing In: How Sustainable Agriculture Fared in the Senate Farm Bill

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

Now that the Farm Bill baton has been handed from the Senate to the House of Representatives, it’s worth pausing for a moment to examine the bill’s major features from the perspective of small farmers and the sustainable agriculture movement.

Commodity Reform

Good: From a policy perspective, the bill’s most significant provision relates to reform of the system of payments and subsidies designed to protect producers against the vagaries of the market. For the past fifteen years, this system has been based in part on subsidies that have limited or no relation to actual market conditions. The Senate-passed bill eliminates the most controversial of those subsidies in favor of an insurance-based system more closely linked with market conditions. Amendments approved during the Senate debate further modified the program to place limits on subsidies flowing to the largest farms, and to subject recipients to certain conservation requirements.

The move away from direct and counter-cyclical payments toward a market-based system, coupled with payment limits and conditions, are a welcome development in the government’s approach to farming. Given the influence and political savvy of the large commodity advocacy groups, major changes to subsidies don’t come around very often, and they should be recognized when they do.

Bad: Despite these encouraging steps, government support for agriculture remains oriented toward the staple crops produced by large farms. While the bill expands dedicated funding to support research and promotion of fruits and vegetables, the support comes in the form of block grants to states, which means the money will eventually dry up. In contrast, subsidies for staple crops will continue to flow as long as farmers are eligible. This effectively creates a two-tiered system, with more consistent and reliable support for staple crops than for fruits, vegetables, and other crops.

Food Stamps

Almost three-quarters of the money in the 2012 Farm bill is contained in its nutrition title,  and the bulk of that funding goes to the federal food stamp program (also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP). In addition to the importance of SNAP in providing nutritious food choices for all Americans, the issue of food stamps at farmers’ markets has received a good deal of attention in recent years.

Good: The bill includes a separate pot of funding that increases the value of SNAP dollars when they’re used at farmers’ markets, based on the successful and popular Double-Up Food Bucks program in Michigan, as well as money for a farmers’ market program aimed at improving access to fresh produce for seniors, and for promoting farmers’ markets across the country.

Bad: Due to increased influence by Tea Party sympathizers in Congress, the bill’s authors were forced to agree to make significant spending cuts, and SNAP was among the hardest hit programs. The Senate bill cut the program by about $4.5 billion over ten years. This is money that could have been used to strengthen measures to incentivize healthy choices, or to provide additional assistance to those in need.

Other Sustainable Priorities

Despite some of the structural disadvantages organic and sustainable farmers face under the proposal, the Senate bill continues or expands funding for several programs dedicated to supporting those causes in a variety of ways. Some examples include:

  • Fruits and Vegetables: As mentioned above, the bill increases funding for state block grants and other, smaller initiatives intended to support the research and promotion of fruits and vegetables (known as “specialty crops” in the agriculture policy arena).
  • Organic Farming: Funding for assistance to organic farmers, farmers transitioning to organics, and research and data collection is continued at approximately the same levels as in the previous farm bill.
  • Local and Regional Food Systems: As mentioned above, the bill increases funding to support and promote farmers markets in a variety of ways, and, with varying degrees of aggressiveness, it seeks to support local food projects like community gardens.
  • Access to Healthy, Affordable Food: The bill makes a number of changes to existing programs, including the Healthy Food Financing Initiative and SNAP, to help address “food deserts” and incentivize the purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables (e.g., by allowing the use of food stamps for Community Support Agriculture operations).
  • Beginning Farmers: The bill includes a number of provisions designed to support new farmers, including by continuing the existing Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (offering education and training for new farmers) and improving access to loans and insurance.

While the bill is far from perfect form the sustainable perspective, and while not all sustainable-minded groups support the bill, it is notable that the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition–the movement’s most connected advocacy organization–came out in support of the bill at the conclusion of the Senate debate, even after grumbling audibly about the measure that came out of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Now, the action moves to the House of Representatives, where the Agriculture Committee approved its own bill earlier this week. While there are significant differences between the Senate-passed version and the House measure (primarily on the issue of SNAP funding), the main stumbling block in the lower chamber is related to internal Republican Party politics, which may prevent the bill from ever seeing the light of the House floor. With August recess only three weeks away, and with a September 30 deadline for passing a bill, that means the path forward for the 2012 Farm Bill remains uncertain, to say the least.

For now, supporters of sustainable agriculture can settle in for the House proceedings with the knowledge that the effort put forward by the Senate addressed many–if not all–of the movement’s priorities to an encouraging extent.

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