Update, December 21: This week President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law. The final version of the bill that was negotiated by the leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees avoided the worst provisions of the House bill, including dramatic changes to SNAP and conservation programs and rollbacks of pesticide rules. And the final bill does include some important gains for organic producers and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. But it fails to fix the biggest structural problems in our food system, by continuing to allow the meat industry to take advantage of guaranteed loans and conservation programs to subsidize factory farms.
Update, October 5: On September 30th, the 2014 Farm Bill expired because Congress did not pass a new version of the bill or an extension of the current one. So what now?
For many Farm Bill programs, including crop insurance, commodity payments and SNAP, not much changes because they are authorized and funded to run beyond the Farm Bill cycle. Some of them will run without interruption until the end of the calendar year and some can continue indefinitely.
But for other programs, many of which sustainable agriculture advocates describe as “tiny but mighty,” the expiration of the Farm Bill leaves them high and dry. These programs include beginning farmer training programs, research and transition assistance for organic agriculture and local food promotion programs. Some conservation programs may not allow farmers to enroll due to the Farm Bill lapse as well.
How long we might go without a Farm Bill isn’t clear. The 2014 Farm Bill was actually supposed to be done in 2012, which gives some indication of the difficulty of getting these bills passed in an increasingly partisan Congress. There is some hope in the agriculture community that Congress will pass an extension of the current bill during the lame duck session after the election. Whether or not an extension would put these tiny but mighty programs back on track remains to be seen.
Update, July 6: On June 28, the Senate passed their version of the Farm Bill by a vote of 86-11. Very few amendments were considered on the floor by the full Senate, while others that were considered not controversial were added to the bill without a vote.
Next Steps: The versions of the Farm Bill passed by the House and Senate are significantly different, especially on nutrition programs (SNAP), conservation programs and preemption of local and state laws. Now a conference committee will have to meet to reconcile the two bills. Then the reconciled version will have to be adopted by both the House and the Senate.
Update, June 21: The House passed their version of the Farm Bill this afternoon, by a vote of 213-211. This was the second attempt to pass the bill in the House; the first vote in May failed because a block of conservative Republican members voted against the Farm Bill after negotiations about bringing an immigration bill to the floor broke down. Because the House embarked on the process of considering immigration bills this week, the Farm Bill was brought back for a second attempt and enough Republicans voted for it to pass. Just like the first attempt, no Democrats voted for the House version of the bill, primarily because of the bill’s aggressive cuts to SNAP.
Next Steps: The Senate may consider their version of the bill next week. The House and Senate versions are significantly different, so if the Senate version passes next week, a conference committee will have to meet to reconcile the two bills. Then the reconciled version will have to be adopted by both the House and the Senate.
The Farm Bill establishes policies and government support for U.S. agriculture, nutrition assistance, rural economic development programs, agricultural research and much more. The bill generally lasts for about five years. Last month, the House Agriculture Committee passed a version of the Farm Bill that got almost everything wrong. The House bill is so aggressive in how it cuts nutrition assistance and other programs that no Democrats voted for it in committee or on the House floor, and the bill failed when a group of Republicans voted against it as part of a larger debate about immigration policy.
While the House bill continues to be stuck in limbo, this week the Senate started their Farm Bill process. On Wednesday, the Senate Agriculture Committee took a different approach, and passed a bill that was bipartisan and almost unanimously supported in committee (with only one vote against the bill.) This is not unusual historically – Farm Bills are usually considered to be pretty bipartisan affairs. But in the current Congress, this is a rare example of a bill receiving bipartisan support.
Differences Between the House and Senate Bills
So how is this bipartisan Senate version? If you compare it to the terrible bill in the House, it’s pretty good. If you compare it to what we actually need to fix our food system, there’s a lot of work left to do:
- Supplimental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill does not attack the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – the most important safety net for low-income families – largely leaving the program intact.
- Conservation – Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill does not eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program, nor does it create a pathway for factory farms to get long-term conservation payments.
- Preemption – Unlike the House bill, the Senate bill does not include a measure that would prohibit state and local governments from setting standards on the production of agriculture products that are imported into the state if the standards exceed federal law (the King amendment.)
- Organic – The Senate bill actually has several good provisions for organic agriculture, including more money for organic research, increased enforcement to prevent fraudulent organic imports, and a program that offers partial reimbursement for annual organic certification fees used by many operations who may be starting out in organic. But (and there’s always a “but” when it comes to a giant package of legislation like the farm bill), the Senate bill does have some unnecessary language about the procedures of the National Organic Standards Board, which plays a key role in setting the organic standards, that could make it harder to keep synthetic chemicals out of organic production.
- Equitable Access to Credit – The Senate bill updates farm credit programs by offering new loan servicing options to help farm families preserve farmland and avoid foreclosure and expanding eligibility for emergency loans following a catastrophe such as a drought or flood. The bill also strengthens equity for tribal farmers and food systems and invests in programs supporting the nation’s historically underserved, veteran and young farmers and ranchers.
Room for Improvement in the Senate Bill
While the Senate bill is better than the House bill, here are some areas where we think it needs improvement:
- Commodity Crops – The Senate bill maintains the approach of the last farm bill when it comes to commodity crops like corn, soy and wheat by emphasizing subsidized crop insurance as the primary farm safety net. Missing is any discussion of the real reforms we need, including restoring grain reserve programs that could be used to provide stability for farmers and rein in overproduction of these commodity crops that end up as cheap feed for factory farms.
- Factory Farms – For several Farm Bill cycles, large-scale factory farm operations have been eligible to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from a program called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to subsidize equipment or facilities to manage the massive amounts of manure they generate. By allowing factory farms to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize their manure management, EQIP funds have helped corporate agribusiness consolidate the livestock industry. The Senate bill would continue to allow this practice, as well as increase the size of loans to farms that the USDA will guarantee. These guaranteed loans serve as another subsidy to factory farms, which can convince banks to lend them money to expand or build new facilities, with taxpayers taking all the risk.
The next step for the Senate version of the bill is a vote on the Senate floor, which may come in the next couple of weeks. Stay tuned for updates on that process and what amendments may make the bill better or worse. In the House, they are supposed to try again to vote on their version of the bill before June 22.
Neither version of the Farm Bill does what we need to fix the food system. Tell your member of Congress to stop supporting factory farms in the Farm Bill.