Even food-centric people who regularly tune out to the din of congressional back and forth might want to take note of the deliberations as Congress hashes out the 2012 farm bill. The bill affects much of the food system in America by appropriating the money that pays for hunger and nutrition programs, school-lunch programs, farm subsidies, research, crop disaster relief and more.
This year’s debate is of particular importance in the wake of the failure of the congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, known as the supercommittee, which couldn’t agree on how to cut $1.5 trillion from the federal budget. Now farmers and agricultural analysts are keeping a close eye on how a series of deep automatic cuts in federal spending might affect the farm bill’s provisions.
But Susan Prolman, executive director of the nonprofit National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in Washington, D.C., is one observer closely monitoring the details of the bill that most of the public rarely notices.
The debate began in August during the debt-ceiling crisis, just as legislators were also working on the farm bill, which comes up for renewal every five years. Because the supercommittee couldn’t agree on a deficit-reduction plan, mandatory cuts will go into effect as of October 2012. With this date coming in the home stretch of the 2012 presidential campaign, Prolman anticipates Congress will delay a farm bill to avoid an election-eve drama.
“Congress might find a way to finalize the 2012 farm bill in 2013 instead,” she said.
Food stamps, other programs in jeopardy
Because the farm bill comes up for authorization every five years, the 2012 bill will stand until 2017, so its contents have been the focus of much energy in the food-advocacy world. The common themes of discord in the foodie blogosphere, food documentaries and opinion pieces in the mainstream press are that the current farm bill spends too much money on the wrong incentives, with large agricultural commodities such as cotton and corn receiving subsidies at the expense of “specialty crops” such as vegetables, fruits and organic farming.
Although many think the farm bill’s funding goes primarily to support farmers, the lion’s share of the money actually pays for hunger programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps, and Women, Infants and Children, another federally-funded nutrition program. The farm bill also supplies food to the school-lunch program with the surplus food produced by subsidized agriculture.
Congressional agricultural committee leaders have proposed cutting agricultural spending by $23 billion. Prolman is concerned that resulting program cuts would be overreaching.
When the budget ax swings, legislators are all keenly aware of what segments of the agricultural and food industries are strongest in their states and districts. Representatives of corn-producing states want to be sure corn subsidies are protected, and senators from cotton-growing states want to be sure that industry is protected, for instance.
“Proposals keep going back and forth across the aisle, across predictable constituency lines with some senators worrying that their state corn producers won’t get as good a deal as the cotton producers in another state, and others concerned that soybean farmers will get the shorter end of the stick,” Prolman said.
“As a senator, you always want to make sure your in-state producers get the best possible deal.”
Looking for sustainable advocates
Prolman and others hope that sustainable agriculture interests and growers of fruits and vegetables can find their own advocates in Congress, including representatives from states that produce an abundance of these crops. Funding for programs in rural development, conservation and food access are at stake.
“Overall dollars in the budget for these programs are small, but they represent important priorities,” Prolman said.
Advocates for these programs understand cuts are probably inevitable, but hope to keep the cuts from being too deep. With the threat of budget cuts looming, legislators who usually can take their time crafting a farm bill are hurrying to finish.
“Usually it takes two years to write a farm bill,” Prolman said. “The committee is trying to get the whole process done in the space of a few months, significantly accelerating the process.”
Zester Daily contributor Louisa Kasdon is a Boston-based food writer, former restaurant owner and founder of letstalkaboutfood.com. She is a columnist for the Boston Phoenix, the food editor for Stuff Magazine and has contributed to Fortune, MORE, Cooking Light, the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine and the Christian Science Monitor, among others.
Photo: Tractor working in the field. Credit: Wojtek Kryczka