Posted on September 9, 2011 - by

Better Food in 2012

Why the Farm Bill matters

Flickr: TonyParkin76

A tall stack of paper will determine what you and your family eat for the next five years.

It’s a piece of legislation known as the Farm Bill, and it’s up for reauthorization in 2012. The bill helps the government set the agenda for our food system, by allocating billions of dollars to back up agricultural policy and nutrition assistance. We believe it could use some rethinking.

Currently, many families don’t have access to affordable, healthy food; small-scale farmers can’t compete with big agribusiness; and our land is being diminished by pollution and erosion. Thanks to deregulation and consolidation, a small but powerful group of companies controls the prices that farmers receive for their products, leaving small and midsized farms vulnerable to market fluctuations. Meanwhile, supermarket mergers have left just five firms collecting more than half the retail profit, so that the cost of groceries stays high for consumers even while farmers settle for low prices.

The 2012 Farm Bill presents an opportunity to fix a broken food system. Activists, entrepreneurs, and consumers are making strides locally, but we need policy at the federal level that supports small and midsize farms, protects public and environmental health, and upholds the right of low-income families to healthy food.

The bottom line? If you eat and pay taxes, this bill matters.

What is the Farm Bill?

The Farm Bill is a hefty piece of legislation that determines how our tax dollars are put to use in the food system. Initiated during the New Deal, the legislation was originally intended to stabilize commodity prices. Now the bill generally keeps the price of certain commodities artificially low.

Overall, the bill dictates which programs and producers get government funding, and how much; it influences how our food is grown, processed, and distributed; and ultimately the bill determines what kinds of foods are affordable and available locally.

Congress reauthorizes the farm bill every four to five years. The 2008 version is up for renewal in 2012, in the context of growing public interest in food and agriculture, economic instability that particularly affects food access for poor families and the prospects for small producers, and political leadership bent on cutting social and environmental programs in the interest of corporate greed.

What does the Farm Bill really do?

The greatest percentage of the funding allocated in the Farm Bill goes to nutrition programs. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides food stamps, is the country’s largest food assistance program. Nutrition assistance is a particularly important issue in the 2012 bill thanks to the recession. Enrollment in the program has grown dramatically since 2008. SNAP serves 43 million Americans, half of them children.

The next largest slice of the budget goes towards farm subsidies. Subsidies largely support corn, wheat, rice, soybean, and cotton production in the Midwest. Because subsidies drive down the cost of a few dominant crops, those products have been increasingly used by food companies, for energy, and in livestock feed—to the detriment of marketplace diversity, regional networks, and consumer health.

The farm bill also allocates funding for conservation. The legislation supports some of the United States’ largest and most effective conservation programs. The programs pay farmers to take fragile land out of production, encourage erosion control, and protect the water supply by increasing wetland and riparian buffer habitat.

Finally, a tiny fraction of the funding supports a variety of other projects, including rural development and investment in organics.

Who is involved?

In the House, the Agriculture Committee will be led for the first time by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), known as a supporter of commodity producers. The Ranking Member is Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN). Sixteen of twenty-six Republican members of the committee are new to Congress, as are several Democrats from non-traditional and urban districts.

The new chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry is Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who has shown her support for specialty crops. Pat Roberts (R-KS) assumes the role of Ranking Member.

What’s Next?

While the powerful agricultural industry lobbies hard in Congress to influence the redrafting process, representatives aren’t used to hearing from all the other Americans who have a stake in the legislation. That means that your input matters. Stay tuned for information about taking action in support of fair, healthy, and sustainable food systems.

What would you like to see in the 2012 Farm Bill? Leave your ideas and questions in the comment section.



We'd love to hear yours!

  1. Visit My Website

    September 9, 2011


    patrick Brunmeier said:

    there should be checks and balances built in which serve to separate conflicts between corporations and government. there should be some mechanism for stopping monopolistic actions of Monsanto, etc….

  2. Visit My Website

    September 9, 2011


    Elizabeth said:

    I would like to see the ban on inter-state raw milk transport repealed. I would like to see small farms exempted from the onerous and expensive regulations that apply to big corporate farms. I would like to see an end to antibiotics in feed.

    I would also like to see an end to the deceptive use of the word “natural” in labelling meat. It is used to mean “no hormones or antibiotics added TO THE MEAT,” but most consumers assume it refers to how the animals are raised.

    There was a big fuss a year or two ago about regulations that supposedly would prevent farmers from winnowing and saving their own seed. I never did figure out the truth of the matter, but seed sovereignty should be protected.

  3. Visit My Website

    September 9, 2011


    Jacqueline Hart said:

    The new information available about the harm of GMOs should be evaluated and all GMOs banned. For that to happen, great measures should be taken so that former Monsanto officials who now hold positions at the FDA and even in the Supreme Court should be meticulously EXCLUDED from ANY influence in the process; and evidence submitted ONLY by scientists who are not funded directly or indirectly by Monsanto should be permitted in the evaluation of its effects on the land, animals, and people.

  4. Visit My Website

    September 11, 2011


    Mike said:

    Zoe- you have to leave your liberal bias at the door and see that it is the OVERREGULATION of the food industry – regulations designed to enhance crony capitalism and push liberal agendas- that has warped the entire food industry.

    You rightfully pointed out how the farm bill is huge, onerous, pushes pricing of commodities inappropriately etc. It is, in fact, a sh$& load of regulations…

    I do find it numerous (and typical of libs) to point out that the use of food stamps has increased and implynthat it is due to increased need for food stamps. Sorry, but the data clearly shows that is not the case. States get money for increasing use of food stamps and so push hard to get people signed up. Use of food stamps for NEEDED food and nutrition has been falling for some time- they are used for many things other then needed nutrition (hard to believe isn’t it? You give money to folks and they abuse it).

    We need to make sure these programs designed to help those who NEED it are run properly and do not waste money or use the money to buy votes (as is clearly being done now).

    The answer is to have necessary regulations and policies to stop fraud and abuse, but to then get the heck out of the way and allow our system to work as it always has when not shackled or morphed by over-regulation and overt political agenda.

    Please- work towards those goals and we can work together to solve any problem. Be honest and look for obvious clear political motive, not overused homilies (“big -oil owns Republicans” for example). Food stamps is a great place to start… it is overused, and being used to create dependence, “victims”, and future Democrat voters. I am not saying we don’t need the program, we need it to be run and evaluated fairly- look at the results and modify it as needed to be efficient and effective. Is that asking too much?