Why the 2012 Farm Bill Matters

Friday, July 15, 2011

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, President of the Environmental Working Group Ken Cook, previews the next iteration of the Farm Bill, which is due sometime in 2012.

There are more similarities between agriculture and energy than one might expect. Like the oil industry’s “Big Five," agriculture has its big commodities—corn, wheat, soybeans, rice and cotton. Corn is the biggest of the five, with up to forty percent of it being used to produce ethanol, which is in turn used by the oil companies to mix with gasoline. Like the oil and gas subsidies currently under scrutiny in Washington, farm subsidies are also under consideration as Congress and the White House look for ways to save money.

As negotiations go forward the bill may well see some changes and reductions. Ken Cook calls it as much a “food bill” as a farm bill.

There are a couple of things about the farm bill which are pretty surprising when it comes to how we spend our money, [and] what we invest in.

One of those things is food. The Food Stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Access Plan (SNAP), is funded under the Farm Bill. SNAP costs tens of billions of dollars annually and comprises about seventy percent of the money spent. Cook said the Bill also funds many initiatives to protect the environment including some of the largest conservation programs currently in the federal budget, as well as organic food and local farmers markets.

One area of the bill particularly coming under fire is the farm subsidy program, which spends from $12- 20 billion a year providing payments to farmers of the big five crops. 

More and more, people are concluding that they're broken, they're not the kind of investment pattern we want to take on the problems that we're facing.

Given that so much of the bill goes to food stamps, it’s interesting that farm subsidies are so much of the discussion. Food stamp enrollment has increased dramatically during the economic crisis, with 45 million Americans now using the resource. Cook said despite the program’s importance, the benefits are meager.

They are brutally means-tested. If you make more than about $24,000 in a household of three people, you’re too rich to qualify.

Though they are an environmental group, Environmental Working Group’s top priority is to protect the Food Stamps program.

The US Department of Agriculture has awarded nearly $168 billion dollars cumulatively in commodity subsidies in the past fifteen years. Yet in 2010 alone, Farm Bill programs spent $96.3 billion, so a significant reduction has clearly already happened. But Cook said subsidy payments have actually decreased and the majority of farmers do not receive federal support.

The reason is simple – the farm economy is booming.

This boom is part of the problem. Politicians are looking to make budget cuts in the Farm Bill partly because the farmers are doing so well. The subsidies go out whether or not the farmers are in need, and in recent years big five farmers have made record profits.

This raises the obvious question: Could the tax payers have some of that back, please?

Cook said if even twenty percent of that money were reinvested, it could have a dramatic impact every year on improving school lunches.

We might still be supporting farmers, but maybe we’d be supporting farmers who grow fruits and vegetables locally, providing things for salad bars and snacks for kids at school to get them hooked on healthy food.

He thinks a better bill would bring much lower limits on the amount of money that very large operators can receive and invest more into conservation programs and healthier more local foods.

These farm programs, they’re not worthy of the farmers who participate in them, to be honest. Farmers deserve a better safety net.


Even though New York City isn't an agricultural hub, many subsidy recipients are registered in the five boroughs. 

Courtesy of the Environmental Working Group

Image courtesy the Environmental Working Group



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Comments [11]

thatgirl from manhattan

ms. van buren: the issue of fracking, to many NYS farmers, is that because they don't receive subsidies, and property taxes upstate have steadily climbed, that they deserve to make "some kind of living" from their land via leasing to gas companies.

yes--we need to protect family and organic farming, but NYS needs to address some way that either better distribution of their product, tax credits or other measure be offered as disincentive to leasing one's land for gas extraction. those of us working to educate NYC/NYS have had these conversations with upstate farmers and their reps in Albany, and no one, to date, has come up with any viable suggestion. The fact that 10% of NYS farmers are receiving 64% of federal subsidies syncs with their rationale for leasing thus far. and damascus citizens for sustainability have been working to educate NY and PA citizens on this issue for more than three years now. we invite those who haven't looked at this issue to join us the dialogue concerning new york's energy, environmental and food futures.

Jul. 15 2011 11:52 AM
Henry from Manhattan

The insistence on consuming meat, dairy and eggs multiple times a day in a standard American diet is what leads to grain subsidies. Insisting the ethanol or high fructose corn syrup is the root of this problem is missing the forest from the trees.

Not only are crops for animal food production subsidized, but the industries themselves receive subsidies and also get access to public land for grazing and enjoy lax environmental regulation that no other industry would get away with.

Jul. 15 2011 11:39 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Thanks for answering my question on reducing the burden of organic certification on small organic farms. It seems to me this is something that could be supported across a large part of the political spectrum & even be a model for reducing paperwork in other areas of government. Theoretically, anyway--I'm not sure anything like this is possible in today's political climate.

Jul. 15 2011 11:34 AM
ann van buren from Hastings on Hudson NY

Speaking of fuel and farming: Fracking is a major threat to the greatest agricultural areas in our country. The toxins pumped into the ground will eventually rise up and pollute our soil; they can destroy water sources; their disposal will create toxic waste sites and be dangerous cargo on their journey to the often poor, rural communities where they are dumped. We need to support local, organic agriculture to reduce our dependence on fuel, reduce the carbon footprint of food transport, and to boost local economies. For more information on the Farm Bill and information on the struggles of small farmers, I would recommend looking at Food Systems Network and Slow Food USA. For information on Fracking, look at Food and Water Watch as well as United for Action.

Jul. 15 2011 11:29 AM

Is certification for organic status part of this?

Jul. 15 2011 11:26 AM

Are there any programs aimed at scaling up organic farming methods to acheive economies of scale comparable to mainstream methods?

Jul. 15 2011 11:26 AM
Robert from RBC

Here's what I do with all that high fructose corn syrup, I make pecan pies, mmmmmm, pecan pie.
Doesn't everybody!!

Jul. 15 2011 11:20 AM

Waiting for the opposing opinion...We are already the choir...

Jul. 15 2011 11:20 AM

I'd like to see saner programs for crop subsidies, with the savings applied to exansion of the SNAP program.

Also would appreciate a rational biofuels program based on characterisitics of the final product rather than specific crops. The envrionment impact of vaious biofuels depends on a lot of factors other than biomass inputs, including how farm equipment is fueled to how the product is processed.

Jul. 15 2011 11:19 AM

Now that we are burning our food for energy (biofuel), and subsidizing this, is there a shifting of the biggest players in the food game, from the cargills to the exxons?

Jul. 15 2011 11:09 AM

Please CUT red state socialism.
It is degrading to the red states to be forced to take gifts from the more developed coastal blue states
Let the market set the price of corn (we are too fat to have cheap food anyway)

Jul. 15 2011 10:21 AM

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