The Agriculture Act of 2014, this year’s farm bill, faced a difficult road to passage this time around. After the 2008 farm bill expired at the end of 2012, it suffered a stunted nine-month extension as part of the fiscal cliff deal. Then, after six months of debate and a limited extension, the bill expired, and its new replacement was signed into law on February 4, 2014. Like most legislation in Washington, it became nothing more than a drop box for special interests and partisan fights. As this past iteration proved, the farm bill is proving an ineffective and blunted tool to reform America’s agricultural and nutrition policy, with little moxie for reform.
The concept of a farm bill originated as a provision for crop subsidies as part of the New Deal programs. Excess agricultural supply lowered prices, putting farmers at economic risk, which limited the food supply. To lower these risks and prevent over-farming, the government enacted crop subsidies. At the time, the subsidies were enacted yearly, creating income uncertainty for farmers who were not sure if and when the bill would be renewed. The Food and Agriculture Act of 1965, widely considered the first farm bill, sought to remedy that uncertainty by providing multi-year rates for these crop subsidies. So began the tradition of the five-year omnibus bill to ensure America’s food supply.
Over the decades, the nature of the farm bill has changed. The Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act of 1973 was the first farm bill to expand its role beyond crop subsidies. It included disaster payments for farmers and also included the first incarnation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), colloquially known as food stamps. The Food Security Act of 1985 constructed enduring conservation programs for the agriculture industry. The Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 included significant changes to our food safety system and initiated the Rural Development Administration. However, despite its complex content, the bill almost always passes.
All of these issues have tremendous implications for the food Americans eat, the strength of our agribusiness sector, and the nutrition of our poorest citizens. But the belief that they should all be addressed in a one size fits all bill that requires a timestamp is misguided. Rather than passing an omnibus bill, Congress might consider delinking the subsidies, food stamp program, and agricultural oversight provisions. This approach has many advantages.
The only issues that the farm bill needs to address on a regular basis are crop subsidies. Agricultural subsidies are passed as multiple year programs to allow farmers to know how and when to plant. Considering the changes in scope and intention of the bill, it may no longer serve as the most effective legislative tool to address this country’s agricultural and nutrition programs. Of the 11 bills passed in the last century considered by the Congressional Research Service to be farm bills, the delay of the 2014 farm bill was by far the longest. The delay allowed for critical disaster relief and rural development programs to expire. The overwrought debate on the farm bill created the very uncertainty that it was designed to avoid.
Food stamps are renewed along with the crop subsidies, so the issue only comes up once every five years. However, the major change in food stamp policy necessitated this year could have been solved earlier if the policy was delinked from the farm bill. State poverty law recently changed designations on low-income citizens, enabling citizens who did not meet federal requirements to become eligible for food stamps. This loophole was opened up in between farm bills, but could not be solved until it came time to renew the farm bill, leading to significant government waste.
While farm bills are noteworthy for pork barrel spending, the 2012 draft of the 2014 bill was notoriously wasteful. John McCain had to set up a special staff to read the entire 2012 draft of the farm bill to catch explicitly partisan provisions. It infamously included a provision for a new catfish-monitoring scheme. This scheme, in a report by the GAO, was found to have been included without indicating any “problem with catfish or a need for a new federal program.” The bloated state of the farm bill is such that these examples of policies blatantly motivated by special interests are now commonplace. Limiting the scope of the bill limits the scope of frivolity.
Allowing these policies to be passed together does have its benefits, though. It enables representatives of the urban poor to protect the food stamp program by forcing its passage with food subsidies, and vice versa for rural legislators. This protection is only necessary because of a shift in the makeup of the Agricultural Committee. Michael Pollan, prominent food critic and Knight Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, notes, “The constituency for food stamps doesn’t bother to serve on the Agricultural Committee.” After the creation of the program, the urban legislators responsible for its construction migrated from the agricultural committee. “So they kind of left the store without a manager. And we’re perhaps more vulnerable to these cuts than if they had stayed on the committees.”
Political wills for change are few and far between, especially for a bill as entrenched in special interests as the farm bill, but change could come soon. For Michael Pollan, change will arrive when America aligns the interests of our agriculture policies with the health of consumers, rather than the health of the agricultural industry. He notes the success of the anti-tobacco movement in building a coalition with the health insurance industry was based on the cost of insuring lung cancer. Currently, the agricultural industry does not have an opponent willing to fight the status quo.
Pollan thinks a coalition could arise through a change in the way Americans perceive the health effects of food. “If you see a lot of type II diabetes, people don’t always assume that’s because of a bad diet, because of a lack of exercise, all these other things.” As the haze lifts on the links between industrial agriculture and health, there may be a heightened opportunity for a renewed conversation. “[With] Type II diabetes, there’s a lot of research connecting it to increased sugar consumption. That’s all you need to explain it.” The healthcare industry, in Mr. Pollan’s estimation, may prove to be an important ally as it did in the anti-tobacco movement.
Once America moves past an overly structured farm bill, it frees itself to discuss pressing agricultural issues that were once taboo. Pollan hopes to see a renewed attempt to reconcile our agricultural industry’s goals with environmental ones. “We now reward overproduction, consolidation, overuse of fertilizer, and, in fact, maximum contribution of greenhouse gases by farmers.” Because the global climate plays an increasingly important role in agriculture, evidenced by incidents such as the drought in California or floods in Pakistan, it will become increasingly important to regulate the interaction of the two. If the structure is eliminated, and representatives are not afraid of jeopardizing their pet programs, both crop subsidies and food stamps open themselves up for loud, passionate, and public debate.
The 2014 bill was the first time that a farm bill was debated for more than a year. These conversations meant nothing after Congress forced itself into passing a bill, regardless of the quality. An inability to target debate on specific issues effectively led to a continuation of the status quo. While direct payments to farmers were ended, the crop subsidy program was expanded. While SNAP’s funding was reduced, food bank funding was increased. A desire to create certainty pushed important policy issues out of the national conversation. America needs to move past an antiquated agrarian ideal and start developing pragmatic policy solutions through sharpened legislative tools.