Back to the Future: Will the Farm Bill Debate Change Nothing?

With a deadline looming, Congress will likely pass another extension of the last version of the law—but anti-hunger and ag advocates are hoping for bigger changes.


Sep 16, 2013· 4 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

What are the seven signs of the Farm Bill apocalypse? It’s a question that seems worth asking in light of all the seemingly unthinkable things that this latest, protracted debate over agriculture policy and food assistance programs has brought about. We’ve seen the House vote down its own version of the bill, and then corporate welfare and welfare-welfare uncoupled. More recently, the conservative Heritage Foundation made an impassioned case for continuing government manipulation of milk prices (for the good of the poor!). And today, two former Senate leaders from both parties are together making the case for an “adequately funded” food assistance program—an argument owned by urban politicians according to the historic Farm Bill playbook.

In their op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Senators Bob Dole (R-KS) and Tom Daschle (D-SC) write, “We proudly count ourselves among a series of bipartisan teams of legislators who worked past those differences to address hunger through provisions in the farm bill.” The gist being: We made this work in the past, now you have to as well.

But the changing nature of the Farm Bill debate is shown in their own writing. “By stripping the nutrition title from the legislation this year, the House has severed the vital tie that helps connect our food system with those who struggle with hunger in our own backyard.” That’s the rural hungry they’re referring to—not the urban hungry that have traditionally been seen as the main recipients of food assistance. Additionally, there are a growing number of suburban SNAP recipients, and hunger still remains a problem in urban areas too.

So how will the Farm Bill reflect the new realities of hunger in the wake of the recession, of farmers’ needs coming off of a number of years maked by high prices and numerous ecological disasters? By looking exactly like the 2008 Farm Bill, most likely. That version will likely have to be extended again at the end September, when the current extension is set to expire.

When asked about the current debates, Dr. Daryll E. Ray, director of University of Tennessee’s Agriculture Policy Analysis Center, was quick to bring up the long-standing connection between farming and hunger concerns—a relationship he believes will still play a valid and necessary role in determining policy. “But I don’t think it’s going to happen in time, by the end of this month, so my expectation is that they will have to extend the previous Farm Bill, the 2008 Farm Bill, for at least a few months if not longer,” he says. “I think that eventually there will be an opportunity for cooler heads to prevail and hopefully there will be an opportunity to bring some legislation to the floor.”

Speak with anyone who follows the Farm Bill closely and you’ll eventually come around to hearing their prognosis of the inherent problem with the legislation—and how it might be fixed. For example, in Ray’s estimations, the protections the current subsidy-and-crop-insurance model provides performs very well—but only when the market swings upward.

“I say that it’s an upside-down safety net: It’s very good at providing a safety net when prices are high, but it’s very bad at providing a safety net when prices are low—and that’s probably what we’re going to have” in the coming years, he says.

If and when cooler heads do prevail, Ray would like to see what he calls a band set around prices, one that flags a reasonable high and low they can freely fluctuate between, according to the whims of the market. But if they dip too high or too low? The federal government would intervene to bring the price of crops back within the band. Under such a policy, “there’s a tendency for the market to be at an equilibrium,” says Ray, and it would eliminate the need for massive direct payments to farmers too.

Those on the hunger side of the equation, such as WhyHunger’s Alison Cohen, who is the anti-hunger non-profit's Senior Director of Programs, are similarly inclined to move past the debate happening in Congress. While she does say its “anxiety provoking” that the GOP-led House is considering such drastic cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, her response when asked what a good solution to the current conversation might look like was an indictment of the broader system.

“Why is it that folks are using SNAP? It’s because there aren’t enough living wage jobs. Even if we were looking at growing the economy as a solution, it’s just simply not enough,” she says. “Growing the economy will not stem hunger, will not reduce hunger, if you do not address the growing inequality. And that means addressing living wages. And I think that’s an important aspect of the food and Farm Bill that’s getting lost.”

In terms of the current legislation being considered, Cohen is hoping that the program will be funded at the current levels, at the very least, rather than being slashed by as much as $40 billion—a number that’s been thrown around by House Republicans. It would be preferable to see the program grow, she says.

But clearly that’s not to say Cohen doesn’t see opportunities for reform.

“SNAP now represents more than 10 percent of grocery spending. And who benefits from that?” she asks. “It’s three powerful industry sectors, such as manufactures—such as Coca-Cola, Kraft, Mars—also food retailers, such as Walmaart, which has the largest percentage of grocery sales in the country. And JP Morgan Chase, who is administering the EBT program.”

Cohen’s analysis might not be quite as sober as Ray’s, but they both agree that the Farm Bill we’ll likely get isn’t going to be the best for the farmers and the food-insecure Americans it’s supposed to help and support—not to mention the taxpayers who help fund the programs.

Ray believes that his reforms could right farm legislation, but overcoming the political opposition on the right to market manipulation is a significant hurdle. “It goes against those that feel the government should not intervene in the market,” he says of the band approach to crop price control. “And rather than viewing the distortions to the market that we see with no programs or this kind of [subsidy] program and comparing it to that, they say that they would rather see that kind of cyclical, distorted kind of situation than for the government to be that heavy-handed in ‘manipulating the markets,’ as they would put it.”

While the current system of farm subsidies and crop insurance has small-government politicians opting for the more acceptable form of corporate welfare—paying out cash instead of interfering with markets—Cohen is concerned that the trajectory of the SNAP debate could push food assistance out of the public sector altogether.

She says that WhyHunger hears less from SNAP recipients who are concerned about the impending cuts than it does from the organizations that help people make up the difference: Food pantries, soup kitchens, food banks and anti-poverty programs. Such groups have been hindered by the recession too, and the proposed cuts have them worried there will be more people turning to them for food at a time when they’re already lacking resources.

The feedback has her concerned that, with these potential SNAP cuts, the government’s responsibility to provide for the hungry “is quietly being shifted to the private nonprofit sector.”

Because the need for nutritional assistance doesn’t go away if Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program gets cut. “In fact, it increases it,” Cohen says.