The current US Congress is locked in battle over the 2018 Farm Bill, a comprehensive omnibus bill that must be renewed every five years. Just as with the rest of US politics at the moment, the legislation is hotly contested and increasingly partisan. On 30th September, the 2014 Farm Bill expired, and the replacement bill languishes in conference with Democrats and Republicans attacking each other. Without a new Farm Bill, critical programmes are effectively eliminated or their implementation is severely inhibited, but despite this, it does not look like the 2018 Farm Bill will be approved any time soon.

Today the Farm Bill is the primary piece of agriculture and food policy in the US. But how did we get here? How did a single piece of agricultural legislation become so divisive? When did a mechanism of farm support become a political tool?

How did the Farm Bill start?

The first Farm Bill was introduced into the US Congress in 1933 to give financial assistance to farmers struggling to cope with the Dust Bowl. In the early 1900s, the falling price of agricultural goods meant that farmers plowed up more and more of the Great Plains to make up lost income. By 1931, drought and high winds resulted in significant soil erosion, with crop yields declining by 50%. For eight years, crops consistently failed due to poor soil quality and 3.5 million people abandoned their farms.

However, while the Dust Bowl was terrible for rural America, it was not enough to get Washington to act. While Congress repeatedly passed legislation to regulate crop prices, President Coolidge consistently vetoed any farm relief package. It was not until the stock market crashed in 1929, that the situation changed. With a plummeting national economy, crop prices a third less than they had been a decade earlier, and a new President in office, farm support was suddenly more politically palatable.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Agricultural Adjustment Act into law on 12th May, 1933. A cornerstone of his New Deal policies to support the country during the Great Depression, this legislation allowed the federal government to pay farmers not to grow food on a portion of their land – by paying farmers not to produce, crop supplies decreased, and, in turn, prices increased so that farmers could once again earn a proper living from their produce. The Act also included a provision to purchase surplus crops from farmers and distribute them to under-served communities. While aspects were flawed in execution, the impact of this act was significant, with farm incomes rising by 50% in 1935, in comparison to 1933. The 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act was only meant to be temporary but, based on its success, the policy was permanently adopted in 1938 with a proviso that Congress reauthorize it every five years.

Hungry for change

By 1939, Americans were dying of hunger. With soup-lines growing ever longer, the Food Stamp Program was created to distribute food to low-income communities. Proposed by Secretary of Agriculture, Henry A. Wallace, the Department of Agriculture distributed food stamps to 20 million Americans from 1939 to 1943 when the project’s authorization ended.

Following the undeniable success of the Food Stamp Program, there were numerous calls to make the project permanent and in the following years, many studies and proposals were considered. In 1960, the permanent establishment of a Food Stamp Program became a campaign promise of then-candidate John F. Kennedy, whose first Executive Order was to establish a pilot project. Unfortunately, President Kennedy was assassinated before he was able to get Congressional approval for a federal programme and it was President Johnson who signed the Food Stamp Act into law in 1964, hailing the programme as, “a realistic and responsible step towards the fuller and wiser use of an agricultural abundance”.

However, certain Machiavellian strategy was needed to get it through Congress. Ever the political master, President Johnson combined price supports for cotton and wheat with food stamps to convince rural politicians to vote in support of a hunger programme that primarily targeted urban communities. Hunger and farming support have been linked ever since, with the 1977 Food and Agriculture Act folding the entire food stamp programme into the Farm Bill.

Conservation farming

While the 1980s was an era of conspicuous consumption and excess, it was the 1985 Food Security Act that saw environmental programmes being included in farming provisions. The Conservation Reserve Program and conservation compliance were included to tackle the growing environmental degradation caused by industrial agriculture. Between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s, intensive farming practices alone were responsible for the loss of 12 million acres of wetland, which motivated the introduction of Sodbuster and Swampbuster, which aimed to halt the degradation.

These initiatives built on the growing environmental movement in the United States that had gained significant successes in Washington during the 1970s with the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts in 1970 and 1972 respectively. With soil erosion and agricultural run-off impacting US waterways, the environmental protections within the Food Security Act were meant to reverse the damage through the establishment of buffer-zones and vegetative cover on vulnerable lands.

The politics of hunger

In 1996, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act that added significant restrictions on food stamps. These restrictions included: making individuals convicted of drug-related felonies ineligible; requiring food stamp recipients to cooperate with child support agencies as a condition of eligibility; and suspending eligibility for 10 years if recipients misrepresented their identity or residence. Faced with such restrictions, participation declined dramatically, with 5.6 million participants dropping out of the programme in the two years following their introduction.

However, the food stamp restrictions were not the only controversial piece of legislation in 1996. The 1996 Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act introduced the new mechanism of crop insurance to deliver farm support. This created a range of unintended consequences including land-use change since the risk was transferred from the farmer to the public purse, creating incentives to plant on marginal and environmentally sensitive lands that would otherwise be too risky to farm. Crop insurance also generated moral hazard as farmers were able to financially benefit from yield-loss or mismanagement of their land, safe in the knowledge that the Government would pick up the cheque.

Millennial machinations

To overcome the growing stigma around the Food Stamp Program which had arisen from the restrictions that portrayed it as a welfare programme for poor, urban Americans, the 2008 Farm Bill renamed it the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Government additionally redesigned the programme to deliver funding through Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT), allowing participants more options to purchase fresh produce at farmers’ markets and increased accessibility to local stores.

Just as happened following the Great Depression, the 2008 Great Recession saw an increase in hunger. In response President Obama increased the amount of SNAP credit available by 13.6% through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). However, the provision in the Act was time-limited and increased funding ended in 2013.

Farming Trumps hunger?

Given the increasing divisions in the US between urban and rural communities and the rising political desire to cut the federal budget, there have been growing calls to decouple SNAP benefits from the Farm Bill. The 2014 Farm Bill budget reached more than $489 billion, and SNAP accounts for 80% of that cost while crop insurance accounts for 8% and conservation programmes another 6%. In the past, the combination of farming and nutrition supports proved a useful political calculation, ensuring support from both rural Republicans and urban Democrats. However, in today’s political climate, there seems to be no room for cooperation and compromise.

The situation today

Currently, the 2018 bill is stuck in legislative limbo. On 21st June, the House voted to approve the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 and the Senate passed its version, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, on 28th June. These two Bills now need to be reconciled into one piece of legislation which both Chambers in the US Congress can support. Given the substantial differences between the two Bills, it seems highly unlikely they will be reconciled.

The version of the Bill in the House (which has a Republican majority) would eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program, although they have proposed moving a fraction of the funding over into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The Bill would also impose work requirements for those receiving SNAP benefits, which would affect about 5 to 7 million people. The Senate (where the Democrats have greater influence) is unlikely to ever vote for such measures.

The Senate version would eliminate $2 billion for rural utilities to open up funding for a number of other priorities, including initiatives promoting renewable energy development and local and regional food, research funding for urban and indoor farming, and financial assistance for beginning farmers and ranchers. Most importantly, Senate Democrats have ruled out imposing work restrictions on SNAP benefits.

What’s next?

The legislation has reached a stalemate. If a bill doesn’t pass by the end of the year, it is likely that lawmakers will extend the current farm bill and then need to return to square one on new legislation next year. The Sustainable Food Trust will continue to monitor the legislative developments and will be featuring a series of articles on the Farm Bill to delve deeper into the detail.


Photograph: Norman Z

Sign up to our Newsletter

Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news