Both houses of the US Congress passed a compromise on a newly revised Farm Bill this week. This encyclopaedic legislation allocates nearly $100 billion of taxpayer money annually for food assistance, farm subsidies, on-farm conservation incentives and a dozen other programme categories.
Unfortunately for people who truly care about a world centered around healthy agricultural landscapes and nourishing affordable food, this Bill looks a lot like the same old Big Ag friendly boondoggle. Commodity farmers will be set to receive more handouts – instead of fewer – to overproduce crops such as soy or corn, in monocultures that erode the soil, poison the water and air, raise animals in factory conditions and devastate biodiversity. Milk producers will be able to continue to flood markets with less risk of bankruptcy and cotton growers will rake in expanded subsidies as well.
After many decades, the US Department of Agriculture is reversing its ban on industrial hemp cultivation. Cannabis containing less than 0.3% of psychoactive THC can be grown as a commodity and rotation crop and will be eligible for federally-subsidized crop insurance. Some are predicting a rapid reintroduction of the versatile fiber and oilseed crop across North American farmscapes.
The Washington Post editorial board described the soon to be signed legislation as “a bad bill—that could have been a lot worse.” Because the US House and Senate were so far apart in their separate versions of the bill, the process moved to a compromise phase known as ‘conferencing’. A deal was made between Republicans and Democrats – despite the fact that a newly elected Democratic majority in the House will be seated in January that could have presumably pushed for a stronger position. One can only wonder why the minority leaders bargained to finalise a bill with the current draconian House, rather than waiting a month for a more reform-minded chamber?
To preserve the status quo is the only logical presumption.
Granted, the Republicans play hard ball. The House Bill included strict work and job training requirements for certain food stamp recipients, in the name of promoting “independence”. This would have negatively affected more than a million hungry Americans for questionable budget savings. The House Bill also included riders that would have permitted the use of neonicotinoid chemicals that harm pollinators, exempted pesticides from clean water regulations and eased restrictions on logging in public lands under the guise of fuel reduction. The Democrats declared victory when these crucial elements were dropped. But whether they were ever serious expectations or just part of a shrewd negotiating strategy, is a burning question.
While Republican lawmakers were attempting to place tougher work requirements on the poorest of Americans, they were actually loosening the restrictions on subsidy eligibility requirements for what legally constitutes a “family farm.” A loophole in the 2019 Farm Bill will redefine what it means to be “actively engaged” in farming. New policies have been drafted to allow children and their spouses, nephews, nieces and cousins to receive up to the $125,000 crop-subsidy limit as long as they can demonstrate management responsibilities, even if they never step foot on the farm.
There apparently are a few gains to the so-called ‘small but mighty’ programmes. Efforts to expand composting operations and reduce food waste in 10 states, along with the establishment of a food loss and waste reduction liaison were funded at $25 million per year through 2023. Permanent mandatory funding was granted for local food initiatives, beginner farmer supports and organic research. Given the value these programmes generate and proven track records, their funding should not only be guaranteed but increased ten-fold.
Conservation spending was renewed at the 2018 level, with an increase of 3 million acres in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). This programme pays landowners to leave land fallow or protect on-farm habitat. The per acre fee has been reduced to 80% of average county acreage rental rates, however, making it a less attractive option to rolling the dice with crop insurance. Enrolling acreage in land sparing CRP contracts means that no farming will take place over a 10- to 15-year period. With the rise of taxpayer funded crop insurance that pays 62% of farmers premiums, many landowners have chosen to plow up millions of acres of erodible land. Taking sensitive lands out of habitat protection comes at a great financial and ecological cost.
The innovative Conservation Stewardship Program also survived the House Bill’s attempt to morph it out of existence by moving it into another programme category. The CSP, as it is known, rewards farmers for a range of stewardship activities rather than per acre commodity output. Practices include chemical reduction, cover cropping, energy saving, habitat protection and diversification of operations – essentially the way farming should take place now and into the future.
Federal money spent on conservation programmes are clearly the most justifiable investments the government makes in rural landscapes and economies, using public money for public good. In the absence of supply management policies, crop subsidies and crop insurance payments encourage the overproduction of commodities by taking the risk out of planting. This shifts the burden of low prices and abusive machinery- and chemical-intensive farming on to taxpayers. While American farmers are caught in a cycle of low crop prices, when global markets are flooded with cheap commodities, it is often the smallholders in nations without subsidies who are most affected. Conservation programmes should be designed to pay landowners for efforts the market does not acknowledge: building resilience with perennial habitats that can harbour fish and wildlife, filtering run-off, limiting storm damage and removing carbon from the atmosphere by storing it deep within the soil.
Policy makers may declare the preservation of conservation budgets at 2018 levels a victory, but citizens were done a great disservice. Conservation programmes were slashed by $6 billion during the 2014 Farm Bill and should have been restored to former spending levels – at a minimum.
The main takeaway of the newly passed 2019 Farm Bill is that once again the nation’s commodity farmers are deemed ‘Too Big to Fail’. Given the dire warnings about how swiftly the world needs to act to address the impacts of climate change, which agriculture certainly affects and is effected by, the lack of reforms seem like a failure of imagination. When it comes to food and agriculture policy, we reap what we sow.
Dan Imhoff is the author of numerous books on food and agriculture, including Farming with the Wild, Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature (with Jo Ann Baumgartner) and CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, (winner of the 2011 Nautilus God Prize for investigative journalism). The Farm Bill: A Citizen’s Guide (with Christina Badaracco) will be released in January by Island Press.
Photograph: Daniel Parks
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