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The lesser of two evils: Why food advocates are pushing for a farm bill they don’t love

What’s that sound? It’s the clock ticking as the timeline for this year’s farm bill process begins to run out. The current bill expires Sept. 30, and we now have less than two weeks before Congress’ month-long recess begins on August 3.

So what's the holdup? Now that both the Senate and House Agriculture committees have passed their versions of the bill, you’d think they’d get to work hashing it out, right? Wrong. Instead the Republican-controlled House is stalling.

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Lobbyists spent $173.5 million trying to shape the 2008 farm bill

The farm bill is all about cheddar and cabbage.

The last time Congress passed a farm bill was 2008. Not exactly a triumph of thoughtful politics, it was loaded with subsidies and carve-outs. (This year's farm bill, now moving through Congress, has been pulled between between removing  and worsening those giveaways.)

There's a reason why that 2008 bill heavily favored the status quo: the status quo invested heavily in that outcome. A new report from Food and Water Watch outlines exactly how much was spent and by whom to lobby for the final bill.

Click to embiggen.

The 2008 Farm Bill lobbying campaign ranked among the most well-financed legislative fights of the past decade. More than 1,000 companies, trade associations and other groups spent an estimated $173.5 million lobbying on just the 2008 Farm Bill, according to a Food & Water Watch analysis of data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics. (See Table 1.) During every day that the 100th Congress was in session in 2007 and 2008, special interests spent an average of $539,000 lobbying on issues covered by the Farm Bill. …

Agribusiness, commodity trade associations, food manufacturers and other interests all pushed to get a big slice of the Farm Bill pie. The $173.5 million lobbying frenzy ranked alongside the Center for Public Integrity’s $120 million estimate for health care reform lobbying and the Center for Responsive Politics’ $250 million estimate for lobbying on the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill.

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Insult to injury: How the House snuck protection for GMOs into its farm bill

shhhApparently it wasn’t quite enough for the House Agriculture Committee to pass a version of the farm bill that made over $16 billion in cuts to food stamps and allowed for an open-ended expansion of crop insurance for Big Ag.

No, the members of the committee also felt the need to sneak something in to help out those poor struggling biotechnology behemoths in their attempts to win approval for new genetically engineered seed. Since we all know genetically modified seeds never win approval. I’m sorry. Did I say never? I meant always.

But apparently an unending winning streak isn’t enough for the biotech industry. It wants to make sure that the U.S. Department of Agriculture approves its new seeds with minimal study, and loses the ability to withdraw them from the market should they prove harmful. To top it off, biotech companies want to ensure that anyone harmed by these seeds will have no recourse for damages.*

Read more: Farm Bill, Food

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Will the farm bill prop up doomed crops in this extreme climate?

Photo by Tom Woodward.

Things are looking bleak for corn farmers in the Midwest. Drought conditions and above-average temperatures are likely to continue for some time and now even soybeans -- corn’s sister commodity -- are succumbing to the weather. The economic implications for the entire Midwest -- and not just farmers -- are dire.

Not that this is entirely unexpected. Experts have been warning commodity farmers for years that a changing climate will lead to exactly these kinds of devastating conditions in the nation’s heartland.

And, yes, I agree with David Roberts, who says it’s time to dispense with “climate disclaimers,” i.e. the “well, gee, we don’t really know” qualifications about the relationship between climate change and these kinds of weather events. After all, as Grist reported recently, the government’s National Climatic Data Center calculated that if the climate weren’t warming, we wouldn’t expect to see another period as hot as the last 13 months have been until the year 124,652. Does anyone really believe that we’re experiencing “100,000-year” warmth? Me neither.

There’s also the effect the heat and drought are having on food prices; Bloomberg Businessweek reports that prices on grocery store shelves are already on the rise:

In May, retail prices of boneless hams, ground beef and cheese in the U.S. were close to all-time highs set earlier this year, while chicken breast jumped more than 12 percent during the first five months of the year, government data show.

“When people look at rising prices for hamburger, butter, eggs and other protein sources from higher corn costs, that’s when more money ends up in the food basket,” said Minneapolis- based Michael Swanson, a senior agricultural economist at Wells Fargo & Co., the biggest U.S. farm lender. “We were hoping for a break, and we aren’t going to get it.”

But it’s also worth considering what’s going on in the Midwest in light of today’s markup of the House Agriculture Committee’s draft of the new farm bill. [Update: The House Agriculture Committee approved the bill on July 12. There is still no date set for a vote by the full House.] While I reported on the outrageous cuts to food stamps in the House version last week, I didn’t get a chance to review the equally outrageous, effectively unrestricted expansion of crop insurance included in the bill. As the Environmental Working Group summed it up, the committee draft “would give unlimited taxpayer dollars to farmers who are already making record profits and less support to hungry kids who depend on federal assistance for food.”

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Three ways to protect food stamps from a cruel Congress

As expected, the House version of the 2012 farm bill contains deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called food stamps). With its $16 billion proposed cut in this critical safety net, the House leadership is about three times as cruel as the Senate, which already approved a $4.5 billion reduction over 10 years. If the House gets its way, two to three million Americans could go hungry. In addition, 280,000 kids could get kicked off the school meal program because their families’ eligibility is tied to SNAP. And speaking of kids, almost half of all SNAP participants are children.

Of course it doesn’t have to be this way. Congress has plenty of options for saving money, it’s just easier to reduce the deficit on the backs of poor people. The Environmental Working Group summed it up succinctly: “the bill would give unlimited taxpayer dollars to farmers who are already enjoying record profits and less support to hungry kids who depend on federal assistance.”

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Stamp of disapproval: House farm bill to gut nutrition program

Photo by Don O'Brien.

When the Senate passed its version of the farm bill, we at Grist had to admit that, for all the flaws, it “wasn’t all bad news.” Some of the worst aspects of the bill (like giveaways to the insurance industry and to big commodity farmers) were reined in by several late-breaking amendments, and federal nutrition programs (“food stamps”) were “only” cut by $4.5 billion over the next 10 years. That may not sound so great, but it’s all relative; farm bill analysts have been warning for months that the House version would be much worse.

In fact, later today, we’ll find out for sure just how much worse it can get. The House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to release its draft of the farm bill tonight -- and according to Politico’s David Rogers, the House GOP has indeed forced far deeper (you might even say extreme) cuts to food stamps as the price for passage. According to Rogers' sources, the House version of the farm bill will cut $16.5 billion over 10 years from food stamps alone.

(Update: Shortly after we published this post, the House released its draft. And that number was right.)

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‘Monsanto Protection Act’ would keep GMO crops in the ground during legal battles

It's that exciting time of the year again when the Senate and House Appropriations Committees get together to hash out the annual agriculture budget. I know, right? Really fun stuff.

This year, in addition to the usual underfunding of legislation that could make the food system more sustainable, the appropriations process has become especially charged, thanks to a one-paragraph addition called the “farmer assurance provision.” The provision -- which the agriculture committee approved last week, but has yet to go to the full House -- would allow farmers to plant and grow GMO crops before they’ve been deemed safe. Or, more accurately, if it passes, farmers will be able to plant these crops while legal battles ensue over their safety.

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The farm bill passes the Senate — and it’s not all bad news

The farm bill passed the Senate! The farm bill passed the Senate!

We don't get to say this very often, so forgive our enthusiasm. The bill is a massive piece of legislation passed by Congress every five years (or so), so we get excited about it while we can. An expenditure of about $100 billion a year, it touches nearly every part of our food system. Food stamps? Farm bill. Subsidies to the sugar industry? Farm bill. Insurance for failed crops? Farm bill.

Or, at least, those things all were in the bill. The version that passed the Senate today nearly 2-to-1 is a mixed bag -- with a few bright spots. It leaves sugar subsidies in place, while revamping assistance to farmers in a way that benefits Big Ag. Food stamps (now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) took a hit, but it could have been worse.

Okay, it will probably get worse. When the House considers what to include in the legislation (a process that is still a few weeks away), it's highly unlikely that the balance of cuts will be the same, and SNAP will probably bear the brunt.

Last week, we presented a list of five amendments worth keeping an eye on. Here's how they fared.

Read more: Farm Bill, Food, Politics

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Line ‘em up, knock ‘em down: Senate plans 73 farm bill votes today

To farm bill or not to farm bill, that is the question. Or that's been the question occupying the Senate for the last week. The problem, as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition explains, is that while there is a complete farm bill draft awaiting a final vote in the Senate, senators have filed almost 300 amendments, several of them unrelated to the bill itself.

There isn’t enough time to consider all these amendments, so farm-state senators have worked furiously to pull off a deal involving votes on a package of amendments followed by a vote on the complete bill. It will all culminate today, in what's called a vote-o-rama: votes on 73 amendments in quick succession. (Here’s the guide to amendments to watch we published last week on Grist -- although several of the most reform-minded did not make the cut, nor did the amendment to ban battery cages in egg production. The GMO labeling amendment led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will get a vote, however.) While this process will only get the bill through the Senate (the House is another story completely), it looks like it’s the best hope we have this year.

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The farm bill may be about to make a lot of chickens very happy

In 2008, California voters approved Proposition 2, a ballot initiative that established stricter guidelines for treatment of animals in the poultry and veal industries. Most notably, the measure eliminated the use of "battery cages" for laying hens, small cages crammed with birds who are often unable to even stand. Prop 2 passed by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, despite strong opposition from egg producers across the country.

Though full enforcement of the battery cage ban wasn't mandated until 2015, many producers didn't wait to make changes. Some moved out of state. Others implemented the changes early.

A group of egg producers in this latter category have joined an unexpected crusade: a push to enact rules similar to those in Prop 2 nationally. The Los Angeles Times looked at this unexpected effort last month:

In a rare alliance, the Humane Society of the United States and egg ranchers have joined forces to lobby for federal legislation that would set national standards for egg ranches similar to those implemented at JS West [a California producer that met the Proposition 2 standards early].

"No question about it: Proposition 2 was a major wake-up call to the entire U.S. egg industry," said Chad Gregory, senior vice president of United Egg Producers, a trade organization that represents most of the nation's egg farmers.

Read more: Farm Bill, Food, Politics