There's a Silver Lining to the 2014 Farm Bill That You Haven't Heard About
The $956 billion farm bill is a step away from becoming law.
After two years of partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill, the House of Representatives finally came to an agreement on the omnibus bill that sets policy for food and agriculture around the country last week. It passed it with a 241-166 margin. On Tuesday, the Senate will vote on and likely pass the farm bill and send it to the President's desk.
The bill is primarily designed to maintain a sufficient food supply for Americans and reasonable prices for farmers, but over the years has been lambasted as a corporate giveaway that cements industrial production while keeping organic and local food production a niche player. However, this time is a little different.
While the bill "could have been worse," it makes a number of compromises that are wins for supporters of organic food. And not only that, but a series of big-business, lobbyist-backed provisions were defeated, in a refreshing turn of events.
"[Last week's] bipartisan agreement puts us on the verge of enacting a five-year Farm Bill that saves taxpayers billions, eliminates unnecessary subsidies, creates a more effective farm safety-net and helps farmers and businesses create jobs," said Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Agricultural Committee.
While there were numerous positives reforms in the bill, what's especially noteworthy about this year's farm bill is the series of victories — albeit incremental ones — for sustainable agriculture and smaller farmers. One of the biggest of these was the defeat of the King Amendment, which would have removed state and local measures on food safety, labeling, environmental requirements, labor standards and other important issues.
Sometimes, it's almost as if lobbyists and industrial ag completely dismiss what's good for consumers in preference for what's good for them.
Here's a TEDx talk with some great visualizations to put it in perspective:
Another win comes in the form of several key measures to benefit organic farmers and consumers. In the U.S., demand for organic food products far exceeds supply, but new funding to research organic agriculture and market organic foods should help. Additionally, organic farmers will no longer have to pay 5% more for crop insurance (which wasn't even available to them until 2001). These changes came from Sen. Jeff Merkley's (D-Ore.) amendment, which will also provide the USDA with funding to establish appropriate and fair insurance rates for organic farmers, which has historically been a serious barrier to growth. The moves are relatively small, but should help the increasingly popular small, organic farms compete with the huge corporate ones.
Speaking of crop insurance, a major reform has come in the complete elimination of the direct payment program, which payed farmers billions a year no matter whether crop prices were high or low. The program was originally intended to allow farmers to maintain a living, but with the rise is mega-corporate farming companies, these subsidies have become one of the worst abuses of the federal budget. The program's elimination came in spite of intense lobbying and will save the government $19 billion over 10 years.
The farm bill is often the subject of intense pressure from farm and agricultural lobbyists that have, in many ways, hurt Americans by turning the farming system into a huge entity that has made the country both terribly obese and awfully hungry.
The positive changes in the 2014 farm bill are small, but they're good news for supporters of organic farms.