Is something always better than nothing? In the case of the farm bill extension that was buried in Tuesday’s last minute fiscal cliff deal, maybe not.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) calls the deal — which will provide $5 billion in subsidies to industrial-scale corn, soy, and wheat farmers while short-changing local food, organics, and beginning farmers, and decimating on-farm conservation efforts — “deeply flawed.” The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), meanwhile, has referred to it as “blatantly anti-reform,” while the Union of Concerned Scientists calls it “a giant step backward” and “a blow to farmers who want to grow healthy foods and the consumers who want to buy them.” The National Young Farmers Coalition was also “incredibly disappointed with the results.”
Even Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who led the Senate Agriculture Committee to pass its own farm bill last summer, but wasn’t involved in Tuesday’s final negotiations, has characterized the bill as a “partial extension that reforms nothing, provides no deficit reduction, and hurts many areas of our agriculture economy.”
Sure, milk prices didn’t spike like they were scheduled to if nothing was done, and lawmakers now have until late September to pass a substantial five-year bill. But this rushed, sloppy piece of policy doesn’t bode well for the year ahead in food system reform.
We all know money is tight. And both the Senate and House agriculture committees have spent the year hashing out just how and where to make cuts within the vast sphere of food and farming. What they arrived at wasn’t perfect, but both saw the value of ending direct payments to large commodity farms. (Granted, the farm lobby was pushing for a “shallow loss” crop insurance program that would have done nearly as much to prop up the biggest commodity farmers, but even that shift might have at least left a few crumbs for the little guys.) Instead, a few big farms will continue making a killing. According to EWG, the top 10 percent of farms receive 74 percent of all subsidy money, while two-thirds of farmers don’t get direct payments at all.
On the surface, the bill does include some discretionary funding for things like organic farming research and support for beginning farmers. But that’s just it. It’s discretionary, not mandatory (like the direct payments), making it highly likely that it will disappear in the annual appropriations process.
So, while Bloomberg News calls the result of the extension “back to square one,” that’s not quite accurate. If the 2008 farm bill were being extended in its entirety, then maybe farm policy would be back where we started. Instead, it’s almost like the bill has landed in quicksand or is trapped in a corn silo and is sinking under its own weight. The timing is ironic, of course, because more and more Americans now want to know where their food comes from. But most of us still have very little voice when it comes to the larger terms that control how that food is produced.
Or, as NSAC’s latest statement puts it, we’ve returned to a time when “direct commodity subsidies … are sacrosanct, while the rest of agriculture and the rest of rural America can simply drop dead.” Perhaps — where national policy is concerned — we had never really left.