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.As Politico reports:
Never before in modern times has a farm bill reported from the House Agriculture Committee been so blocked. POLITICO looked back at 50 years of farm bills and found nothing like this. There have been long debates, often torturous negotiations … but no House farm bill, once out of committee, has been kept off the floor while its deadline passes.
As we’ve been reporting, neither farm bill reflects the goals of sustainable food advocates (in fact most in the good food movement think the bills stink and haven’t been afraid to say so). Both would continue to heavily subsidize industrial-scale commodity farming, cut funding to conservation, and short-shrift poor folks, just to varying degrees (the House draft is currently much worse on the latter). But the chaos that could descend if a bill does not get passed at all this year may be even worse than the House bill.
According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), it’s looking very likely that Congress won’t address the bill until it returns in September. By that point, “action on a short-term extension will likely take all of the short number of legislative days available in September, and may spill over into early October.” If they can pull an extension to the current, i.e. 2008, Farm Bill together, NSAC adds, “the working assumption is that then the leadership of the two committees will attempt to work out a final version of the farm bill in closed-door negotiations.” If they can come to a consensus (an image that’s become awfully difficult to conjure these days), “they would then attempt to attach the melded product onto one of several ‘must pass’ bills during the lame duck session of Congress in November and December.”
A number of officials have done their best to put pressure on House leaders to get the darn thing off the ground. Nancy Pelosi is calling on the House, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has made a handful of speeches urging Congress to get moving, and then, just this Friday, 82 members of the House sent a letter [PDF] to House leaders (namely John Boehner, who apparently “hates the farm bill”) urging them to send it to the floor for debate.
The drought in the Midwest is also turning up the heat on the process, as roughly a third of the counties in the nation have now been designated disaster areas. Of course, most of the corn and soybean growers we’re hearing about in the news already have federally subsidized crop insurance, but Vilsack has announced that he hopes the bill reinstates additional disaster funding. And while it’s unclear whether the farm bill would really do much of anything to help small farmers and specialty crop farmers — i.e. the ones with the most to lose and the smallest safety nets — there is some emergency assistance for livestock farmers in the 2012 draft bills.
I’m with the folks at NSAC, who seem to believe that getting this farm bill — or almost any farm bill at this point — passed seems to be the lesser short-term evil. And at least some members of the House seem to be leaning in that direction as well, such as House Agriculture Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) who told Politico: “If this drought continues in the West and Midwest, it could drive members to want to see some action.”
Of course, I say the above with a huge caveat, because it’s also our job here at Grist to think beyond this year’s legislative battles. After all, the drought is impacting agriculture much more intensely than it might were we not growing huge swaths of industrial monocrops in the first place. And, as Tom Laskawy wrote last week, the system of commodity agriculture the 2008 and 2012 farm bills props up doesn’t even begin to allow farmers to prevent or adapt to future droughts. “The weather patterns which gave rise to the Corn (and Soy) Belt of the Midwest have permanently changed. And farming needs to change with them,” he wrote.
The current confluence of circumstances is forcing decision makers to weigh short-term solution against big, long-term consequences, such as: Do we allow farmers to sell hay grown on fragile, swiftly disappearing conservation land to those with nothing to feed their livestock?
Ideally, of course, our lawmakers would be moving quickly not just to pass this bill but to build a food system that is resilient, biologically diverse, supportive of small producers, and based on rich, greenhouse gas-absorbing soil — one where we don’t have to choose between growing food and protecting our environment. That has yet to happen, but we can — in the meantime — build a food movement that is big and flexible enough to allow room for both: A call to short-term action and a vision for long-term change.
Update: On Thursday, July 26, NSAC reported that a one-year extension was looking likely. They wrote: “the House Republican leadership decided this week to use the drought as a cover story for extending the current farm bill for a year rather than passing a new farm bill with substantial reforms.”