Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Farm Bill Expired – What Now?

The Farm Bill Expired – What Now?
By Leslie Woods, Rep. for Domestic Poverty & Environmental Issues and
Nelson Cowan, Intern for Public Witness

As Presbyterians trying to make faithful political decisions, we can find solace and agreement in that “...we seek a sustainable stewardship society shaped for the common good..." (220th General Assembly, 2012).

Despite its misleading name, the Farm Bill affects all facets of society - from urban populations, to rural communities, to developing countries. According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC):

The farm bill is the nation’s major food and agricultural policy vehicle and is about much more than the big ticket items: food stamps, crop insurance, and commodity support.  The farm bill is also about conservation and environmental protection, rural economic and community development, food system reform and agricultural research.[i]

The Farm Bill was up for reauthorization this year, but lack of action in Congress allowed the 2008 Farm Bill to expire as of last Monday, October 1, 2012. What changes and what does not?

The Farm Bill's largest component, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps), will remain funded through at least March, 2013, due to a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government for six months of Fiscal year 2013. Similarly, the next largest component of the farm bill, crop insurance, will remain funded because of the Federal Crop Insurance Act, which is permanently authorized and therefore, does not require reauthorization along with most other Ag programs.[ii] Together, these two programs account for approximately 90% of Farm Bill appropriations. Although these programs are secure for the time being, action must be taken by Congress to pass a new Farm Bill in order to make longer, more secure arrangements.

What are the immediate implications of the expired Farm Bill?  -- mostly conservation and sustainable agriculture programs will be affected right away -- Farm law reverts to permanent law contained in the 1938 and 1949 farm bills.  Each successive farm bill since that time has suspended permanent law for the period of time provided for the newly enacted farm bill, but never before has reauthorization of the Farm Bill been scheduled for an election year.  The vitriolic politics surrounding the current election have made it virtually impossible for elected officials to come to a compromise, even on a bill that usually gains bipartisan support without trouble.  Without a new authorization, policy crafted for a very different agricultural society will take effect.

In short, as the NSAC puts it,

With no new farm bill or extension, the programs that address rural and urban job creation, natural resource conservation, renewable energy, and improved production and access to healthy food are in big trouble.

With the expiration of the farm bill, farmers will not be enrolling sensitive land in ecological restoration projects.  Training opportunities for the next generation of beginning farmers will dry up.  Microloans to the very small businesses that drive economic recovery in rural America will cease.  Emerging farmers markets in rural and urban food deserts will not have access to startup grants.  Organic farming researchers will not be able to compete for any dedicated research funds.

Grants to encourage on-farm energy conservation, to fund fruit and vegetable research, to assist minority and tribal farmers, to rebuild local and regional food systems, to invest in emerging farmer and community owned food businesses with high consumer demand, and to transfer land to young farmers will also be put on hold.

These are casualties of Congressional inaction.[iii]

The PC(USA) has strongly supported programs that support rural communities, new and disadvantaged farmers, and sustainable and ecologically sound agriculture.  With the expiration of the bill, many small, but innovative and effective programs have either completely expired or will cease to entertain new enrollment. 

One such program is the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), which was developed to address and counteract the challenge of the rising age of U.S. farmers and the concern that the younger generation will not be equipped to continue in this line of work.  Despite being one of the most successful programs in the Farm Bill, it will receive no funding until further action is taken.  Thus, new farmer training opportunities, microloans, and start-up grants will cease. Furthermore, organic farming researchers will no longer be able to compete for dedicated research funds, thereby stifling innovation, a hallmark of our nation's ethos.

What about SNAP and other nutrition programs?  In 2011, SNAP kept 3.9 million people above the poverty line.[iv] The advantage of a program like SNAP is that its mandatory nature ensures that it can serve everyone who has need and is eligible.  It functions counter-cyclically with the economy, expanding when times are difficult and more people are in need, and contracting as the economy improves and more people go back to work.  Because of the elastic nature of this program, it is one of our most effective anti-hunger tools during times of economic downtown, not to mention that is puts spending power into the hands of people who need to spend in their local grocery stores, pumping new cash into local economies and a sluggish recovery.  Despite the fact that SNAP makes up the single highest expenditure in the Farm Bill, it should not be one targeted for savings.

The Legislative Situation:

The U.S. Senate has passed a Farm Bill reauthorization, the “Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act” by a bipartisan vote of 64-35 on June 21st.  The House of Representatives also has a bill, which has passed out of committee but not been considered by the full House.  The House bill makes significant reductions in SNAP funding, upwards of $16 billion over the next 10 years compared to the Senate bill’s $4.49 billion reduction, which, though smaller, remains too much in a time of economic crisis and sluggish recovery.[v]

It is difficult to predict what will happen with these bills in coming months.  Some predict that these bills will get pushed through during the lame duck session and combined into a joint bill. But others are skeptical that Congress will come to any agreement during the Lame Duck session of Congress following the election.  Indeed, as people who believe that God desires daily bread for each of us, the next six months will be crucial for advocating for a just farm bill that ensures our nation’s agricultural priorities support the farmers who need help, develop sustainable, healthy, local food systems, protect the natural world, and ensure that the great bounty of this nation, which is abundant indeed, reaches each one of us, so that every person might have enough.

Stay tuned to the Office of Public Witness blog and action alert email system for ways that you can weigh in as the Farm Bill debate drags on.

"As followers of Jesus Christ who live in relative affluence, American Presbyterians must consider the possibility that God places a responsibility upon each of us to use all the means available to us to see that just and sustainable human development becomes a reality for the whole human family in harmony with all of God's creation."
- Hope for a Global Future: Toward a Just and Sustainable Human Development
Approved by the 208th General Assembly in 1996

Further Reading:
            PHP Post, the most recent issue includes an article on the Farm Bill
            Just Living, sustainable lifestyle choices from the Enough for Everyone Program
            Campaign for Fair Food, join advocates in calling corporations to fair food purchasing

Save the Date for our upcoming Advocacy Training Weekend focusing on Food Justice, including Compassion Peace and Justice Training Day and Ecumenical Advocacy Days!

[iv] "As Poverty Remains Unacceptably High, Coalition on Human Needs Calls on
Congress to Preserve Programs Proven to Lift Families out of Poverty." Coalition of Human Needs. September 12, 2012.