What You Should Know About the Farm Bill

"Will the recent explosion in food activism lead to re-crafting our subsidy system, or reallocation of resources?"

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[Flickr: USDAgov]

In a few months, debates will begin of the 2012 Farm Bill, the enormous set of policies that details agricultural activity in the United States. Hearings for the Bill began nearly a year ago, with testimony from citizens and organizations who felt compelled to share their outlook on farm policy. Soon we will begin hearing much more about the cost, impact, and ethics of this bill. So, before the debates kick into high gear, how about a quick history lesson?

The Farm Bill, formally titled the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act, is a huge piece of legislation. Its 15 titles outline policies ranging from crop subsidies to agricultural research to nutrition programs. It is voted upon every five years (though political obstacles sometimes delays the voting process), and each cycle brings debate and shuffling of funds.

The 2008 to 2012 Bill was allocated $287 billion—a hefty sum, and certainly worthy of substantial Congressional consideration.

The first Farm Bill was passed as part of the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. During the Great Depression, farm income dropped by more than 40% and left over six million farming families in despair. The government therefore incorporated agricultural interests into New Deal legislation, intending to protect farmers from ruin. The AAA allowed the government to control the supply of agricultural commodities on the market, and set a huge precedent for government involvement in farming. Through controlling crop prices and providing direct economic benefits to many farmers, the government continues to support the farming industry substantially.

The main ways that the Farm Bill subsidizes agriculture is through direct payments to farmers who are producing specific crops, or through low-interest loans and crop insurance. The first Farm Bill provided subsidy guidelines for six commodities: wheat, corn, cotton, rice, hogs, and tobacco. Today, other crops such as soybeans, barley, oats, and other oilseeds have been added to the commodities list.

In addition to providing assistance to agricultural systems, the Farm Bill also legislates many nutrition programs. ln fact, almost 50% of the Bill's funds are spent on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; emergency food assistance; school lunch; the Woman, Infants and Children program; and the Farmer's Market Nutrition Program. The amount of money allocated to these interests is constantly up for debate in Congress, and often raises tensions between urban and rural interests in both houses.

This primer barely even skims the surface of the multifaceted policy contained within the Farm Bill, let alone the endless debate that rages between large-scale agricultural interests, independent farmers, non-profit organizations, lobbyists, and so on. Once the Bill's hearings begin in earnest, it will be fascinating to see how the current political climate lends itself to drafting the legislation.

Will the recent explosion in food activism lead to re-crafting our subsidy system, or reallocation of resources? Or will the status quo be upheld in the interest of consistency and high agricultural yields? SE'rs, what do you think?

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.

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