Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Just and Healthy Farm Bill

Whenever the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) addresses the complex question of the nation’s food and farm policies, we refer to our faith conviction “that God our Creator has made the world for everyone, and desires that all shall have daily bread” (UPCUSA, Minutes, 1979, p. 189). This underlying conviction of a right to food shapes convictions about agriculture and rural life in this country.

Our nation’s food and farm policies, as embodied in the U.S. Farm Bill, impact people and communities from rural America, to urban centers, to developing countries. In the current budget climate, the Farm Bill’s limited resources must be targeted effectively where the need is greatest. We must prioritize programs and policies that curb hunger and malnutrition, support vibrant agricultural economies in rural communities, and promote the sustainable use of natural resources.

The PC(USA) Office of Public Witness has joined with the interfaith community to call for a Farm Bill that promotes local food security in the U.S. and around the world, strengthens rural communities, and cares for the land as God’s creation. 

The Senate is currently debating the reauthorization of the Farm Bill – the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 (S. 3240) – and consideration promises to drag out for over a week, as hundreds of amendments will be offered.  Your Senators need to hear from you about a just and healthy Farm Bill.

Tell Congress that you support a Farm Bill that:

  • Restores cuts to the SNAP program, while reforming crop insurance subsidies. Senator Gillibrand has introduced an amendment to this effect.
  • Fully funds conservation programs, such as the Conservation Stewardship Program, and preserves the conservation compact, making sure that enrollment in any new insurance subsidies are tied directly to compliance with conservation programs.
  • Robustly funds the Rural Development title, which is essential for spurring rural economic activity and creating jobs.
  • Includes full mandatory funding for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers through the 2501 title. Senator Udall has introduced an amendment to this end.
  • Includes all elements of the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act (S. 1773) introduced by Senator Brown.
  • Includes the Packer Ban to limit consolidation in the meat industry, in accordance with the amendment introduced by Senator Grassley.
  • Shifts our food and farm policy away from price supports that advantage the large, industrial farms, and instead levels the playing field for small and medium-sized growers, as well as a new generation of farmers.
U.S. food and agricultural policy must focus on adopting best agricultural practices that put the health of its citizens, the land, and the livelihood of farmers and farm workers over the interests of a small number of industrial agriculture operations.  Stand up to protect not only farmers, without whom we would all go hungry, but to enact a food and farm bill that fairly and judiciously serves the interests of all Americans. 
In a 1985 statement, the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly wrote “we believe it is the responsibility and duty of the Federal government to enact a comprehensive, long-term food and fiber policy, with specific price, production and conservation goals designed to protect and enhance family-farm agriculture in the United States … We believe further that this nation must establish a strong system of sustainable agriculture and prevent the continuing concentration of land in the hands of a smaller and smaller number of owners” (Minutes, 1985, p. 399).

Senate Agriculture Committee Farm Bill Highlights:

The farm bill under consideration in the Senate (S. 3240) falls far short of the reforms needed to address the nation’s critical food and farming challenges. And perhaps most egregious of this bill’s failures is its $4.49 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – formerly Food Stamps). Nevertheless, this bill does make some positive steps, including a shift in big Ag supports that moves away from price supports and toward revenue insurance.  It also includes incentives for fruit and vegetable purchases, scaling up local cultivation and distribution of healthy foods, and bolstering marketing and research support for fruit, nut and vegetable farmers.

In total, the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 would save $24.7 billion over 10 years, achieving this sum with the SNAP cuts, as well as an end to direct payments to grain and cotton farmers, consolidation of farm and conservation programs, and tightened restrictions on federal payments to farmers.

The committee proposal includes important reforms to the commodity title, which provides farm subsidies to growers of the five big commodity crops: wheat, corn, cotton, rice and soybeans. Despite reforms, the title continues to give away subsidies worth tens of billions of dollars to the largest commodity crop growers and agribusinesses, even as it drastically underfunds programs to promote the health and food security of all Americans. We strongly object to any cuts in food assistance during such dire times for so many Americans. The title also fails to invest in beginning and disadvantaged farmers, revitalize local food economies, and protect natural resources. These critical shortcomings must be addressed now before final Senate approval.


The Senate Farm Bill cuts SNAP funding by $4.49 billion over 10 years, by restricting the “Heat and Eat” program. With these cutsan estimated 500,000 low-income households from 14 states and the District of Columbia will lose an average of $90 per month in benefits, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The cuts would begin October 1, 2013. The “Heat and Eat” program is particularly beneficial to households with elderly and disabled members who often face the choice between heating/cooling their homes and having enough to eat. It allows participating states to coordinate SNAP and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) allowing the LIHEAP agency to provide  heating and cooling aid directly to households receiving SNAP. 

SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps) is a highly effective anti-hunger program that helped provide food to more than 46 million low-income persons in January 2012. Approximately 92 percent of the program cost goes directly to beneficiaries to purchase food. The effectiveness of this program is largely tied to its counter-cyclical nature: as a mandatory program, everyone who is eligible can receive benefits. Therefore, when the economy slows and need consequently increases, the program expands to provide a safety net for all those who need it. When the economy improves and people start to get back to work, the program contracts and costs go down. Programs like this are successful precisely because they reach more people during a recession. Cutting benefits to low-income peopleas the sluggish recovery seems to stagger, would not only be cruel, but economically foolish.
Nutrition conclusion
Conservation Compact

Farm Bill Conservation programs create a “conservation compact” that is an essential tool by which we can ensure good stewardship of the nation’s land and other resources. By requiring basic levels of protections for soil, water, and wetlands, this conservation compact between farmers and taxpayers can help ensure that where public money is invested, the public’s interests are protected. This requires no additional federal investment—in fact complying with conservation requirements saves the government millions of dollars in disaster and crop insurance payments, all the while protecting vital natural resources. Conservation compliance protects the productivity of farmland by significantly decreasing soil erosion and protecting wetlands and other sensitive lands .

One place where the conservation compact is noticeably absent is in the federal crop insurance program.  Most of the farmers enrolled in the crop insurance program today are also enrolled in other federal agriculture programs, and are thus already engaged in conservation compliance.  However, some farms are enrolled only in crop insurance and are therefore not currently subject to rules aimed at preventing unsustainable soil erosion and wetland loss. With the receipt of federal support comes a responsibility to protect resources for future generations; most farmers agree, yet are placed at a competitive disadvantage when poor stewards are allowed to cut corners and reap the same public subsidies.

The conservation compact has sparked unprecedented progress in limiting soil erosion, cleaning up waterways, and protecting wetlands. It has served both farmers and taxpayers very well and should certainly be required in the largest federal farm support program—crop insurance.

Rural Development and Disadvantaged Farmers

One of the proven job-creating titles of the farm bill is Rural Development, which authorizes essential grants and loan programs, spurring growth and opportunity in rural areas through local initiatives. Since 1996, Congress has provided an average of $413 million in each farm bill for the Rural Development title, but this bill includes no funding at all, as reported by the Committee. This failure to fund the Rural Development title must be corrected.

In addition to investing in the future of rural America, we must invest in the future of American agriculture. The average age of an American agricultural producer today is 57. If we allow current trends go unchecked, that age will only increase. Providing training and technical assistance to the next generation of farmers can help buck the trend and ensure future food security. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers Program (Section 2501) require robust funding.

By ensuring continued investments in rural economic development and in the next generation of farmers, we can ensure that the Farm Bill is a “jobs” bill that underpins and enables economic growth in rural communities throughout the United States.

Commodities and Crop Insurance

Farm Bill subsidies were intended to provide a safety net for farmers whose business is inherently risky, but in reality, these taxpayer dollars increasingly go to large, industrial agriculture operations whose profit margins can well afford to bear some of their own risk. As written, the bill ends direct payments for commodity crops, which is a huge step forward, but would  replace those farm supports with Crop Insurance, spending billions of dollars to guarantee income for the most profitable farm businesses in the country. Crop insurance programs must be reformed to work better for diversified and organic farmers and to ensure comprehensive payment caps or income eligibility requirements. Otherwise, this so called “safety net” becomes an extravagant giveaway for affluent landowners and insurance companies.

In addition, the proposed $9 billion-a-year crop insurance program comes with minimal societal obligations. Growers collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance premium subsidies should at least be required to take simple measures to protect wetlands, grassland and soil. Without such a conservation requirement, the unlimited subsidies will encourage growers to plow up fragile areas and intensify fencerow-to-fencerow cultivation of environmentally sensitive land, erasing decades of conservation gains.

Public Health and Healthy Food

Most of the benefits from these programs would flow to the producers of five big commodity crops (corn, soy, cotton, rice and wheat). Meanwhile, millions of consumers lack access to affordable fruits and vegetables, with the result that the diets of fewer than five percent of adults meet the USDA’s daily nutrition guidelines. Partly as a result, one in three young people is expected to develop diabetes and the diet-related health care costs of diabetes, cancer, coronary heart disease and stroke are rising precipitously, reaching more than $120 billion a year.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The Government Accountability Office has identified modest reforms to crop insurance subsidies that could save as much as $2 billion a year. Half could come from payment limits that affect just four percent of the growers in the program. The Senate should use these savings to provide full funding for conservation and nutrition assistance programs and strengthen initiatives that support local and healthy food, organic agriculture, and beginning and disadvantaged farmers. These investments could save billions in the long run by protecting valuable water and soil resources, creating jobs, and supporting foods necessary for a healthy and balanced diet.

U.S. food and agricultural policy must focus on adopting best agricultural practices that put the health of its citizens, the land and the livelihood of farmers and farm workers over the interests of a small number of large, industrial agriculture operation. This nation was built on the principles of protecting our greatest legacy: the land on which we grow our food and feed our families. Stand with us to protect not only farmers, without whom we would all go hungry, but also to enact a food and farm bill that fairly and judiciously serves the interests of all Americans.