How should sustainable-food advocates respond to the latest farm bill proposal?
For months now, the 2007 farm bill has been in limbo, tied up in reconciliation negotiations between the House and the Senate.
On Thursday, the bicameral Farm Bill Conference Report agreed on a final proposal. The latest version will go to the larger House and Senate next week for approval; if all goes well, it will finally go to President Bush’s desk.
But since this wouldn’t be the 2007 farm bill without a final dose of drama, negotiations seem far from over. “The President will veto this bill,” USDA chair Ed Schafer bluntly declared in a Thursday afternoon communique.
The sticking point is subsidy reform, or lack thereof. “This legislation lacks meaningful farm program reform and expands the size and scope of government,” Schafer stated.
Many sustainable-ag and rural advocates would cheer a Bush veto. On the Center for Rural Affairs blog, Dan Owens recently laid out their case:
We will have the opportunity to fight again, and … I have real hope that we can do better, that we can win more, that we can get a farm bill that is better than the one about to pass Congress. And we can try again in 2009. But if the bill becomes law, we will have to wait until 2013.
Others, however, disagree. They argue that the bill contains valuable provisions that need to be passed — small victories that will be surrendered if farm policy reverts to the 2002 farm bill.
Below I’ll try to sketch out what this latest version contains. I’ll also be trying to get movers and shakers in the sustainable-ag/food-justice world to give their perspectives.
The most controversial bit in this farm bill is the commodity title — the program through which the government ostensibly tries to smooth out the financial uncertainty of farming. The title has evolved over the years into a funnel that delivers the great bulk of the title’s cash to the largest farms, doing little to balance out swings in supply and demand.
Bush wants to cut the subsidies because they have become a sticking point in global trade deals, and presumably because of Iraq-related budgetary concerns. Most sustainable-ag advocates would like to see them replaced with more equitable and effective ways of smoothing out supply and demand troubles — ones that benefit farmers and consumers, not the few agro-industrial corporations that dominate our food system.
This Associated Press piece digs into the details of the current commodity title, and how the limits it places on subsidies fall short of what critics including the Bush administration had wanted. In an emailed communique (Word doc), the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition summarized the title like this:
Comprehensive payment limitation reform was not included in the bill. … the net result is no change in the highly skewed status quo on payment limits for direct and counter-cyclical payments.
The latest version also includes a controversial “permanent assistance fund” worth $3.8 billion. A couple of months ago on Gristmill, Britt Lundgren and Jason Funk of Environmental Defense Fund called this provision a “a disaster for taxpayers, most farmers, and the environment.” They say it encourages farmers to cultivate disaster-prone land. Bush, too, has sharply criticized this provision.
If the commodity title and the disaster fund are considered a disappointment, other provisions — ones that, unhappily, involve far less money — have drawn support.
The Community Food Security Coalition reported in a Thursday email that the new version contains funding for Community Food Projects — vitally important programs designed to bring fresh, healthy food to places that now have little access. Writes acting policy director Steph Larsen:
The great news is that Community Food Projects (CFP) is in the final language, and we have $5 million in annual mandatory funding for the next 10 years! As you may recall, this year we started out with no money due to new congressional budget rules that cuts the funding for small programs. New language for CFP should fix this problem so that for the next Farm Bill, CFP will be able to build on the $5 million instead of starting from scratch with zero dollars. And with mandatory funding, we will not have to fight for these dollars every year.
Larsen added the bill also allows public schools to favor local farms in bids for school food. “This change will eliminate [a major] barrier for schools to support local agriculture and will make Farm to School programs easier to establish.”
(Before anyone gets too excited, the bill does not add any funding to the miserly National School Lunch Program budget. Now schools can theoretically buy local; but they still have $.70-$1.00 to spend per day on ingredients for each kid’s lunch.)
The Sustainable Agriculture Coalition also points to several victories, especially with regard to the Conservation Title. This title tries to balance the produce-as-much-as-possible thrust of the Commodity Title by giving farmers incentives to manage their land in ecologically sound ways.
The SAC declared the Conservation Title in the current version an overall “win,” since it delivers “$4 billion net increase in mandatory spending, combined with $2.5 billion in savings from Conservation Reserve Program, for total new funding of $6.5 billion, and a continued rebalancing toward working lands conservation.”
SAC also points to several “wins” in boosting funding for organic agriculture, including a “nearly five-fold increase to help cover the costs of organic certification,” and a “a seven-fold increase” in funding for organic farming research and extension.” It should be noted, though, these outlays amount to sums in the tens of millions over five years, while the cash devoted to industrial-scale farming runs to billions every year.
As for my beloved “packer ban,” which would have forbidden meat packers like Tyson and Smithfield from owning livestock — well, that didn’t survive negotiations.
So, should the sustainable-ag community support a presidential veto — or fight for a Congressional override?
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