If You Eat, You Need to Know: 5 Facts About the Farm Bill

Is the government subsidizing your unhealthy habits?
Aug 4, 2011
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

The 2008 Farm Bill, also known as the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, is up for a vote in Congress in 2012. While that seems far away, it's not too early to start getting informed about a bill that affects much of what you see in grocery stores and farmer's markets. Ever wondered why Cheetos are cheaper than apples? Or why small farmers struggle, even as hunger exists in the U.S.?

Here are five bits of information that you need to know to be an informed citizen about the food you eat. Stay tuned for more tips to come as the 2012 voting process nears.

The Farm Bill Is Not Just About Farms

The 2008 Farm Bill, much of which is set to expire in 2012, contains 15 titles. According to the National Agriculture Law Center (pdf), those titles cover support for "commodity crops, horticulture and livestock, conservation, nutrition, trade and food aid, agricultural research, farm credit, rural development, energy, forestry, and other related programs."

This is the reason why many experts have pushed for a renaming of the bill—to something such as "The Farm and Food Bill" or "The Food Bill"—to reflect the bill's impact on the many facets of the food industry.

Subsidy Spending Is Wonky

A common misperception is that agricultural subsidies provided by the federal government help small farm owners. While some small farms do receive aid, the Environmental Working Group reports that between 1995 and 2010, 10 percent of farms in the U.S. got 70 percent of subsidies. Many of these farms are large-scale, industrial farms. To illustrate just how drastic that is, compare the difference in payments:

  • Top 10%: $30,751 average per year between 1995 and 2010.
    • Bottom 80%: $587 average per year between 1995 and 2010.

    Federal Nutrition Guidelines Don't Match With Federal Subsidies

    Though the Obama Administration—spearheaded by First Lady Michelle Obama—has advocated for Americans upping their intake of fruits and veggies, federal subsidies don't make those types of food affordable.

    From 1995-2010, for example, apple farms received $261,540,987 in subsidies while cotton received more than $31 billion. The majority of subsidies (90 percent) go to five main crops: corn, wheat, cotton, soy, and rice (see pdf).

    These five specialty crops make their way into a number of processed foods (as high fructose corn syrup, for example), making those foods cheaper to buy than healthier items that are not government subsidized.

    Some experts, like Dr. Loel Solomon, Vice President of Community Health at Kaiser Permanente, believe there is a direct correlation between farm bill subsidies and public health.

    “By 2018 obesity is going to consume 350 billion dollars. One in five dollars is going to be spent dealing with health care costs of obesity-related illnesses," he told The Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture (CUEAS). “If we start to think about the farm bill as a barrier to American competitiveness and the ability to grow our economy,” he added, “that really changes the constituency that wants to see a different kind of food system.”

    Not Everyone Who Collects Subsidies Actually Farms

    In 2010, about 90,000 people living in cities collected $394 million in U.S. farm subsidies. These "absentee owners" own the farm land they're being subsidized for, but do not actively work the land. People are eligible for payments if they provide land, equipment or capital, or labor and management, Acting Undersecretary Michael Scuse told Reuters in June of 2011. But regulations to determine if landowners are actively working the land are lax.

    There Is Some Good News

    The 2008 bill, while not a huge step forward, did include some meaningful advancements for small farmers and sustainable food activists. CUEAS reports:

    There was a rural microenterprise program, support for beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers, grants for value-added agriculture, and several strong conservation programs (incentives for farmers to be good stewards of the land, water and air).

    However, these programs depend on an annual vote by House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee of Congress, which means the programs are often contending for funding against much bigger programs.

    Want to see a fairer Farm Bill? Visit Food & Water Watch's petition for an improved Farm Bill in 2012, including leveling the playing field for farmers, making healthy food accessible for all, and supporting new sustainble farming programs. Find the petition here.

    Photo: Bosdos/Creative Commons Via Flickr
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