Why You Should Care About the Farm Bill

The once-every-5-years policy monster is back again. Here’s what you need to know

Last week, the monster agriculture policy bill that is the Farm Bill became the subject of debate in the Senate, and policymakers are going to be up in arms about the legislation that spends some $100 billion a year on crop insurance and nutrition programs.

While the legislation is just starting to make its way through the entire law-making process, we figured we’d round up the basics of the Farm Bill, highlighting the main issues that are getting the most press.

What Is the Farm Bill?
According to Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, the Farm Bill is "663 pages of very, very tiny type divided into 15 sections, and every one section houses… sometimes hundreds of programs."

Of course, now the current bill is some 900 pages long, but it still contains all legislation on crop insurance, conservation measures, and nutrition programs.

Why Should I Care?
Nestled in among the 900 pages is legislation about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps. The legislation currently proposes a $4.5 billion cut to the SNAP program over the next 10 years.

At a recent Farm Bill Food Fight! Panel at New York University, notables such as Marion Nestle and Abby Youngblood of Just Food claimed this would mean that a family in New York City would receive $90 less each month in food stamps. Currently, 46 million Americans receive food stamps.

What About Crop Insurance?
Many opponents to the Farm Bill, including Alice Waters, Mario Batali, Michael Pollan, and Dan Barber, want the government to "reinvest federal farm and crop insurance subsidy dollars into programs that feed the hungry, protect the environment, and promote the consumption of local, organic, and healthy food."

Crop insurance funds, which the bill proposes will be around $9 billion a year, allow the government to take on around 60 percent of farmers’ insurance premiums. Usually, the insurance program is there in case of natural disasters or crop shortages.

According to the Environmental Working Group, subsidies are often inappropriately rewarded, with one-third of the subsidies given to 4 percent of farmers, mostly large farms. Of the agricultural subsidy bunch, meat and dairy take 63 percent of the pie.

What This All Means:
Of course, these aren’t the only issues in the Farm Bill, but as Nestle told us, "These are the issues involving the most money. But the bill covers hundreds of smaller programs that matter to farmers, environmentalists, workers, and consumers."

While most Farm Bill opponents will call for less money for farm subsidies, and more for nutrition programs, the LA Times notes that "Of the bill's 10-year $969 billion pricetag, the vast majority — $786 billion — would be spent on food stamps and other nutrition programs."

So what does this mean? The Environmental Working Group does acknowledge that farmers do need a safety net, but it should require some "minimal societal obligations" to protect wetlands, grassland, and soil.

They ask that you let your congressman know your interests once the House begins to go over the bill. As Dan Imhoff, author of Food Fight! The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill says, "Let’s be clear about the type of food system we want. "