The 2013-2014 Farm Bill: Where are we now?

by Lindsey Webb

Back in November, I wrote a piece that addressed the then current state of the farm bill, the important piece of omnibus legislation that funds many major and minor agriculture- and food-related programs in the United States. These include farm commodity subsidies, crop insurance, agriculture research, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), which makes up around 75-80% of farm bill funding.

When I last wrote, the House and Senate had each passed a version of the bill, and the conference committee, charged with reconciling the differences between the two bills, had just begun its work. The committee faced the seemingly impossible task of negotiating a compromise between the Senate bill, which proposed $4 billion in cuts to SNAP over ten years, and the House bill, which proposed $40 billion in such cuts. The house bill accomplished these cuts in large part by tightening eligibility requirements for the program and by preventing states from applying to the USDA for exemptions to work requirements for certain SNAP participants. Both bills increased funding for emergency food assistance such as food banks and food pantries.

Significant changes were made to some farm programs in both bills, including the elimination of direct payments, which provide farmers with subsidies regardless of the state of the market for their crop. Conversely, both bills dramatically increased the amount of funding available for government contributions to crop insurance premiums. Conservation programs faced a loss in both bills, with each cutting nearly $5 billion from the conservation title over ten years.

The House version of the farm bill also contained an amendment proposed by Steve King, a Republican from Iowa, which would have prevented states from enforcing laws passed by their own residents or legislatures that govern the sale of agricultural products. Affected laws would include those mandating labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), those addressing farm animal welfare, and those banning the use of certain harmful chemicals in agriculture and in food packaging. Though the amendment contains only about 80 words, it stirred up a big controversy. A wide variety of organizations and individuals lobbied against it, including the Humane Society of the United States (a vehement opponent), the Iowa Farmers’ Union, the American Public Health Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and hundreds of legislators on both sides of the aisle.

After months of negotiations and media speculation, the Conference Committee finally issued its report – its final version of the farm bill – on January 28. Journalists and experts immediately got to work analyzing and weighing in on the outcomes.

Anti-hunger organizations have condemned the bill for its $8 billion in cuts to SNAP over ten years, which come largely from eliminating the standard deduction for heating assistance when calculating the total amount of SNAP benefits a household is eligible for. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank focusing on policy approaches to reducing poverty, estimates that about 850,000 families in 17 states will have their benefits cut by an average of $90 per month as a result. The cuts are significant, but as Friedman professor Parke Wilde wrote recently on his U.S. Food Policy blog [usfoodpolicy.blogspot.com], they are “about as mild as program supporters could expect.”

Notably, this farm bill requires vendors authorized to accept SNAP benefits to stock more perishable foods, potentially increasing the number of healthy options available to SNAP participants. While SNAP participants could benefit from the new requirements, second-year Friedman MS/MPH student Kate Olender encourages us to think a bit critically. She points out that small businesses accepting SNAP benefits may be limited by space, infrastructure like refrigeration, and supply chain constraints that don’t allow them to order healthy foods like fresh produce in small enough quantities. When it comes down to it, she said, “it may force small businesses that are unable to comply to stop accepting SNAP altogether, which could decrease food availability in the many communities that rely on such small businesses for food.”

As for the farm programs side of the conference committee’s bill, According to Dr. Tim Griffin, Professor in the Friedman School’s Agriculture, Food, and Environment program, the committee retained some provisions that many Friedman students care a lot about: “[o]rganic agriculture, new and beginning farmers and ranchers, and the like – were not only reinstated but received increased funding.” Direct payments will be eliminated, as expected. Funding for crop insurance subsidies will increase significantly, and farmers receiving crop insurance premium subsidies will be required to meet certain basic conservation goals. Unfortunately, Dr. Griffin said, “the hoped-for cap on payments, along with a modest reduction in crop insurance subsidies for larger farms, both fell by the wayside in the conference between the House and Senate – a disappointment to many (me included).”

The bill passed the house on January 29 with a final vote count of 251-166. Eighty-nine Democrats and 162 Republicans voted yes, while 103 Democrats and 63 Republicans voted no. Eight Democrats and seven Republicans did not vote. The Senate passed the bill easily on February 4, with a bipartisan a vote of 68-32. The Senate passed it on to President Obama, who signed the bill at Michigan State University on February 7. The President praised the bipartisan bill for helping both rural communities and those in need.

We’ll have to wait another few years to see whether the next farm bill will have to endure the same tumultuous ride that this one has been on. After the past half year of intense political debate, we’re left to ponder this question: will farm bill passage will ever be routine again?

Lindsey Webb is a second year FPAN student from Seattle. Yes, she hopped on the Seahawks bandwagon, and no, she is not ashamed to say it. Read more about her at our Meet Our Writers page.

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