January 14, 2013

Now, Not Later – We Need to Talk about the Farm Bill

Robert Lawrence, MD

Robert Lawrence, MD

Director Emeritus

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

This blogpost appeared in Huffington Post Food on January 10, 2013.

Procrastination bedevils everyone, despite the best of intentions. I’ve seen it happen many times with my graduate students, as a promising paper or research idea slouches into mediocrity, or worse, at the 11th hour. Even Thomas Jefferson was an infamous procrastinator, coining the phrase, “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”

I wish this 112th Congress had done a better job heeding the advice of Mr. Jefferson (who was a devoted, if not very profitable, farmer). Instead, on New Year’s Day, after dragging its feet on this pressing business for months, Congress passed a ghost of a farm bill. If they were my students, and I were grading the bill, I would have to give it a D minus. Let’s hope the entire democratic process does not go down with the bill.

Here’s what happened. Earlier this year, in what looked like it might be a bona fide effort, the full Senate passed a new version of the farm bill and sent it to the House. The House Agriculture Committee then passed its own version and got ready to present it to the full House for a vote. Neither of these versions of the bill was ideal, but they took some initial steps toward much needed reform. They would have eliminated direct payment subsidies (billions for commodity agriculture; think soy, corn, cotton, rice and wheat), and they funded a range of innovative programs essential to public health, including ones that support conservation, organics, local and regional food systems, beginning farmers and ranchers, and equity for minority producers.

But what happened on New Year’s Day had very little to do with these versions. Instead, a one-year extension was tacked onto the deal made around the “fiscal cliff.” The extension resembles nothing of those other versions that would have made steps in the direction of reform. This new bill throws those important programs off the cliff, while safely securing the continuation of direct payment subsidies.

One good thing to come out of the extension was the continuation of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program at its current funding. But even SNAP took a hit through cuts to SNAP-ed, a public health-oriented education program. Beyond that, the new bill does not serve public health well. Support for farmers markets is at risk; also at risk is support for organic agriculture production, which is financially out of reach for some farmers but so beneficial for the farmer, the environment, and the consumer; ditto for specialty crop and organic research, and believe it or not, fruits and vegetables are considered “specialty crops”; support may be up in the air for ranchers and farmers who are just starting out and are more likely to produce in sustainable ways but lack the cropland and technical assistance to do so; plus, some important conservation programs that aim to protect soil and water, and in turn protect health, have been weakened.

What’s the bright spot? For the first time ever, the farm lobby’s stronghold in Washington may be weakening. As David Rogers pointed out in POLITICO, “the outcome is a wake-up call to the entire farm lobby of its weakened political standing in Washington…” On top of that good news, the American public is waking up. We’re all becoming more aware that the farm bill isn’t just about rural America. It’s about all of us, the food that we eat, the future of our environment, and our health.

So even though Congress passed a stinker, the iron is hot. We need to strike and make sure that the farm lobby is not the only voice being heard. What are those other voices? The voices that advocate for public health, the environment, the hungry, small business, seniors, and minorities. They all have a stake in this bill.

Agriculture committee leaders have shown that it is possible to work across party lines (at least on agriculture policy). Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) strongly supported passing a full farm bill and including programs essential to public health, but those programs were not included in the extension. One such program is an expansion of the Farmers Market Promotion Program, which would support and promote farmers markets and local/regional food systems. Another public health-related program would create incentives for SNAP participants to use SNAP (food stamps) dollars for fresh fruits and vegetables. The discarded Senate version of the bill also included an important provision requiring farmers receiving federal support to pay their crop insurance premiums to enact basic conservation measures on their land, measures that would protect and preserve the land for future generations and improve water quality now. Ms. Stabenow worked very closely with the ranking Republican on the Committee, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Ks.), to draft a compromise bill. We should acknowledge this leadership, thank them for their bipartisan efforts, and then ask for more.

The farm bill extension that passed was written behind closed doors and serves a few powerful interests — not the interests of the average citizen, public health, and the environment. We should be outraged. And we should use that outrage to demand real reform in the full bill. The full farm bill doesn’t need to pass until next September. We need to make sure we are present, persistent and heard.

Unfortunately, we have been fighting this fight for a long time, and we’re tired. But we must dust ourselves off and regroup; this effort will require tenacity, ferocity, and also patience. As New York Times columnist and noted food author Mark Bittman reminds us, patience is essential for bringing transformative change — patience that accompanies sustained efforts.

We need to insist on a fair and open conversation, one that includes all the voices of those affected by the farm bill. If Chairwoman Stabenow and Sen. Roberts can hash it out, we all can. Let’s talk about how to protect our health, our environment, and our farmers — and let’s not put it off until tomorrow. Let’s start today.

 Photo: Robert Martin


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