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Organizations Outline What a 'Fair' Farm Bill Should Look Like


This week the House of Representatives defeated its own version of the 2013 Farm Bill. Defectors included Democrats concerned about the deep cuts to the nutrition program and Republican reformists, who want to cut spending overall, particularly through further reductions to the Supplemental Nutrition Assisstance Program (SNAP) and crop insurance subsidies for farmers.

When Marion Nestle, professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, taught a graduate-level course on the farm bill in 2011, her students came up with an ideal set of goals for this piece of legislation:

- ensure enough food for the population at an affordable price
- produce a surplus for international trade and aid
- provide farmers with a sufficient income
- protect farmers against the vagaries of weather and volatile markets
- promote regional, seasonal, organic, and sustainable food production
- conserve soil, land, and forest
- protect water and air quality, natural resources, and wildlife
- raise farm animals humanely
- provide farm workers with a living wage and decent working conditions


Everyone agreed that nutrition policy should be aligned with agricultural policy in the interest of alleviating hunger, protecting farmers and their crops, and promoting sustainable agriculture that protects the environment and encourages health and well-being.

The nutrition program became part of the farm bill with the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act of 1973 and has since grown to serve nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population. It has traditonally received bipartisan support and ensured urban support for agricultural policy. However, the farm bill does not provide an explicit link between agricultural food production to nutrition policy. Rather it focuses on preventing shortages and controlling prices of commodity crops, like corn, soy and wheat, which have gotten cheaper and more accessible to the general population, increasing the consumption of packaged, restaurant and fast-food.  

In its current form, the farm bill encourages the production of these commodity crops - which make up 40 percent of children's diets and exclude fruits and vegetables, whose prices have increased by 40 percent since 1980 - on industrial farms without requiring farmers to prevent soil erosion and the destruction of wetlands and natural habitats. Subsidies do not promote crop rotation, beneficial to the soil, and there is not a balanced system in place for dealing with times of surplus- or under-production.

According to a statement released by Environmental Working Group Senior Vice-president for Government Affairs Scott Faber, the current crop insurance subsidy program is not transparent and disproportionately favors a minority of successful farmers who collect more than $1 million a year in subsidies, while the remaining 80 percent get only about $5,000 a year.

The Senate version of the bill, which passed two weeks ago, includes an amendment to level the playing field among farmers, somewhat, by reducing crops insurance subsidies by 15 percent for agricultural businesses earning more than $750,000 a year.

This is a small step toward promoting smaller farm operations, which have been shown to make more than 95 percent of their expenditures locally. By contrast, industrial farms make less than 20 percent of their expenditures at the local level.

The sustainable farming advocacy organization Sustainable Table argues that removing subsidies altogether is not the answer to creating a more equitable and sustainable food system. Instead, setting a minimum wage for farmers and establishing a government reserve for commodity crops would control the flow of production and help farmers sell their crops at their real price value, which would in turn, limit the scale of industrial farming operations and spur local economies.

Among the organization's recommendations for the farm bill are support for food security through a government crop reserve, sustainable farming through crop diversification at the regional and local level, environmental conservation and for making healthy food accessible and affordable through food safety nets and job creation.

The online action center of Food and Water Watch is calling for support for a "fair" farm bill, which would restore the grain reserve and promote environmental stewardship and access to sustainable food through regional food systems.