Congress Announces New Farm Bill, but Something Tells Us the Fight Isn't Over

Huge cuts to food stamps and direct payments to farmers are among the proposed changes.

A farmer walks through his fields in upstate New York. (Photo: Jonathan Kozowyk/Getty Images)

Jan 28, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

After two years of combative negotiations, threats of an impending milk cliff, and polarizing opinions on just how deep cuts to the country’s food assistance program should go, lawmakers are on the cusp of finalizing the nation’s five-year farm bill.

Monday night, House and Senate ag leaders announced they had reached a deal, and they issued the 949-page Farm Bill Conference Report, which means a congressional vote could happen this week. While that’s good news for farmers, who will soon be getting ready for the spring planting season, not everyone is pleased with the nitty-gritty details—not least the meat lobby.

One of the most contentious points of the Farm bill centered on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The Republican-led House fought for cuts as steep as $40 billion over 10 years, but the current bill would slash funding by $8 billion over that period, mostly by knitting up a scheme, known as “heat and eat,” that cities use to boost monthly food stamp benefits.

Even that cut ran too deep for some. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., a vocal advocate of SNAP preservation, says he’ll vote against the bill.

“If cutting programs that help poor people is the price of admission to getting anything done in this Congress, we have strayed too far,” he tweeted Wednesday morning.

Senate agriculture committee chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., defended the changes.

“We have done nothing that changes eligibility or eliminates anyone from food assistance help,” she said.

Eliminated from the farm bill was a controversial amendment inserted by lawmaker Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. King says his push was aimed at California’s egg law, which mandates that hens have enough room to spread their wings, turn around, and lie down, and protected California farmers by keeping out eggs produced in cheaper, less humane ways. But vague language in the amendment had plenty of other states worried that their own food-production and food-safety laws would be thwarted.

Also ending? Direct cash payments to farmers that run approximately $4.5 billion a year. Instead, the bill leans on crop insurance for the farm safety net.

Food policy expert Marion Nestle isn’t impressed with the current bill.

“What can I say? The farm bill is a mess—the worst example of food politics,” she writes on her blog. “Every clause in those 949 pages exists as the result of special-interest lobbying. Guess what: some special-interest groups have more money and power than others. The result: an unattractive compromise.”

However undesirable the bill may be, Park Wilde, associate professor at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, believes it will make it through Congress.

“My guess is this is the way it will go. I have the sense people are exhausted with the back-and-forth,” he says, but passage ultimately may depend on the meat lobby.

Hours after the final farm bill was released, the beef, pork, and poultry lobbies sent a letter to the four committee leaders saying they would “actively oppose final passage of the Farm Bill.” Their beef? In part, that the Senate version of the bill failed to repeal current country-of-origin labeling rules, known as COOL.

If you've bought a package of meat at the supermarket recently, you've seen the new COOL rules in action. Retailers are required to affix labels stating the country where the animal was born, raised, and slaughter. For example, a label on a roast beef might say "From cattle born in Mexico, raised and slaughtered in the United States" instead of simply "Product of the U.S. and Canada." The meat industry says customers may avoid meat sourced outside the U.S.

“COOL is a broken program that has only added costs to our industries without any measurable benefit for America’s livestock producers,” states the letter signed by national trade groups representing beef, chicken, pork, and turkey farmers and the American Meat Institute.

Is the opposition enough to bring down the farm bill? Wilde says he’s not good at handicapping, but the concern is valid.

“I know they’re threatening to oppose the bill. Everyone takes them very seriously as part of the food industry lobby,” he says.