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As members of Congress return from their August recess, they have three options when it comes to the farm bill, the multi-billion-dollar bill that shapes everything from food assistance to farm subsidies to farm conservation. They can pass, renew, or flake.

Congress may still pass a new farm bill before the current bill runs out in September, but, frankly, the odds of this happening are awfully low. Though highly flawed, the Senate version of the bill — with its significant but fairly equal cuts to farm subsidies, food stamps, and conservation programs — has begun to look like an impossible dream. And, in the eyes of most sustainable food advocates at least, the version written by the GOP-controlled House is a straight-up nightmare.

As the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) — the organization whose job it is to track every detail of this now-comically cumbersome process — said in a recent post on its site, the bill could pass if “[it] gets debated and voted on the House floor, the Senate and House versions are melded into one, and the melded version makes it past both chambers before September 30” (read: three short weeks from now) or “the Agriculture Committee leaders conference the Senate version with the House Agriculture Committee-passed bill, and the bill gets attached to a must-pass bill (such as a continuing resolution) in September.”

The second option is to renew the current bill (which has been in effect since 2008) somehow. There was apparently talk that an extension of the bill would have taken place over recess — but it didn’t. And it’s unclear whether it would mean extending the bill for a year, or for a few months, as a way to get through until the “lame duck sessions,” which are coming later this fall.

The third option — “flake” — is probably the most irresponsible on the part of our lawmakers. As NSAC puts it, if Congress fails to act on the farm bill at all, the U.S. Department of Agriculture “would be forced to occupy a multiple-month holding pattern, temporarily stopping many services and programs … programs that need to be renewed and refunded would be left high and dry, including all the major programs for beginning and minority farmers, farmers markets, organic agriculture, renewable energy, and rural economic development.” Government programs that pay farmers to use environmentally friendly practices or put their land aside as a reserve will also now be closed to new applicants.

And, as with most forms of flaking, the longer a decision to do nothing about the farm bill goes on, the worse it will probably be for sustainable food efforts. As NSAC puts it:

Note that should this “do nothing” option happen, then it is likely that Congress would take action to extend or fully reauthorize the bill in the lame-duck session. Doing nothing is very dangerous in September, but monumentally irresponsible in November or December.

Another wrench in the machine is the recent addition of Paul Ryan to the Republican presidential ticket. NSAC says:

Ryan is a leading critic of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, and also has called for cuts to farm programs more than twice as large as those contained in the Senate and House Committee-passed bills.  Lawmakers — especially those associated with the tea party — who share his goal of cutting food stamps and/or farm programs may prefer a delay of the farm bill debate given the possibility that he may be voted Vice President and potentially have a stronger role in shaping the farm bill.

That, folks, is the tangled web that is your country’s farm bill as we enter the second week of September (the big month). Stay tuned.