Why the 2012 Farm Bill Matters

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