Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

June 21, 2013

The Farm Bill: a complicated history and why it matters

Special to Philanthropy Journal
Scott Marlow
Thursday afternoon, the U.S. House of Representatives rejected the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act, also known as the 2013 Farm Bill. The debate had become so polarized that there was not enough of a middle ground to carry the day.
This divergence in political debate results in demonizing each side. The right pegs SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients as taking advantage of a welfare system, while the left demonizes corn and soybean farmers as the cause for childhood obesity. Through all the talk, the untold story is that this is a fight that neither side wins. The winners are the multinational companies that have manipulated all of these programs to benefit them first, and people second.
People often ask me if the Farm Bill is a good thing or a bad thing, and the answer is always, "Yes." It is both. It is truly a huge piece of legislation, addressing issues as varied as rural Internet access, export subsidies, university research, rural economic development and food safety inspections.
The problem exists in how we define what parts are good or bad, and who gets to define it.
The current conflict between farm and nutrition has a certain irony beyond the obvious interdependence of people who produce food and those who eat it. Historically, the Farm Bill has served as a way for our country to maintain domestic production of food and other commodities that could be re-routed to the military in wartime. For instance, the agency that administers the national Farm to School program is the Department of Defense.

Major programs in the Farm Bill, including conservation and nutrition programs, were designed to both achieve their stated purpose and support market prices for commodities. Conservation programs focused on taking land out of production, limiting supply. Early nutrition programs disseminated surplus commodities to take them off the market to prop up the price, or to send overseas as through the Food for Peace aid program. "Government cheese" was as much about helping the dairy farmers as it was about feeding people who were food insecure. 

Commodity programs also addressed the inherent injustice of highly concentrated markets, where a very small number of major companies buy farmers’ harvest at the time of greatest supply, and the farmers’ greatest need. We often hear that farm programs should be eliminated to let the free market decide. But these are not free markets, and have not been for a very long time.

Since the 1980s, Congress has decreased the focus of supporting farm prices in the marketplace in favor of making payments directly to farmers. Controlling supply and propping up prices are no longer the goal of commodity programs; conservation and nutrition also lose this underlying purpose.  

When commodity programs shifted from enforcing a fair price in the marketplace to cutting a check to make up the difference, it shifted the target beneficiaries. Companies could drop prices below the cost of production. Paying farmers the difference benefits companies by allowing them to buy commodities at below the cost of production without the risk of losing producers.

Many negative impacts that folks associate with commodities—cheap processed food, the growth of confinement livestock production—are because grain was allowed onto the market at below the cost of production in the 1990's and 2000's. Current commodity reforms continue this role, but with a different mechanism.

Many of the same companies that pushed for cheaper prices also pushed for changes to school lunches and nutrition programs to shift who benefited. School home economics classes were changed to emphasize the convenience of processed and packaged foods. School kitchens were gutted, increasing the necessity for pre-cooked, processed foods.

So we come back to our original question: Will the Farm Bill be a good thing or a bad thing, and who gets to decide?

The underlying challenges still exist. Farmers still operate in highly concentrated markets. By 2007, only four companies controlled over 80 percent of the soybean crushing market, well over the 40 percent threshold for open markets. Hunger is still rampant. We are still losing soil and natural resources.

In our view, the balance is now off. Farmers deserve protection in highly concentrated markets and the opportunity to farm another day after a bad year. But we can’t ignore that current program structure gives companies the power to draw resources out of rural communities, and that the decisions that farmers make to stay in business, when aggregated, have negative implications for our communities, our planet and our economy.
Programs that should create balance and fairness instead reduce corporate responsibility, subsidize exploitation and facilitate further concentration. There are too many back room deals on the corporate and political levels, too many fingerprints of corporate power and not enough people.
As I write this, good farm programs are being gutted by the expiration of the last Farm Bill in September, the fiscal cliff deal and sequester budget cuts. Thursday’s House vote made the prospect of reviving them much more of a long shot. And the continued demonization of each side by the other makes that process harder.

The Farm Bill is complicated and the current debate is divisive. But if we throw up our hands and walk away, we know who gets to decide. So dig in.
Scott Marlow is executive director of the Rural Advancement Foundational International, which is based in Pittsboro, N.C. Its mission is to cultivate markets, policies and communities that sustain thriving, socially just and environmentally sound family farms.

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