Farm Bill to Face Strong Criticism from Every Angle…Again

The U.S. Farm bill is a piece of legislation addressing most of the federal government’s policies related to domestic agriculture.  Traditionally, a new bill is passed every five years.  The most recent bill, passed in 2008, has had pieces extended to the end of September, 2013, while other parts were allowed to expire last October.  The Bill is consistently one of the most highly contested pieces of congressional legislation.  This is due in large part to the massive nature of the bill, the variety of interests it attempts to balance, and the amount of people it impacts both directly and indirectly.  Some of the most notable opponents of the proposed Farm Bills have been environmentalists, economists, farming organizations, nutritionists, and anti-hunger advocates each of whom take issue with areas of the Bill for various reasons.[1]

The Farm Bill is a massive piece of legislation; the Congressional Budget Office estimated the total cost of the 2008 bill at just below $284 billion over five years.[2] The Bill is divided into “Titles,” which are broad categories that are related to food and farming.  The most recent bill included 15 Titles: commodity programs, conservation, trade, nutrition, credit, rural development, research, forestry, energy, horticulture, livestock, crop insurance and disaster assistance, commodity futures, trade and tax provisions, and miscellaneous.[3] About two-thirds (67%) of the spending measures were allocated toward nutrition, followed by agricultural subsidies (15%), conservation (9%), and crop insurance (8%). The remaining three percent included credit, rural development, research, forestry, energy, livestock, and horticulture/organic agriculture.[4]

Environmentalists find issues with the Farm Bill and attack it from various angles.  Some are against the Bill because they say it incentivizes farmers to plow up wetlands and grasslands that would otherwise be left undisturbed.  Through subsidies and crop insurance plans, farmers have much less to lose if a field does not produce.  This encourages them to farm much more land, often land that does not efficiently or effectively produce crops.[5] For this reason, the combination of government subsidies and the high prices of many commodities has contributed to the loss of millions of acres of wetlands and grasslands in the Great Plains, which has destroyed wildlife populations.[6] Environmentalists also argue that we should not be encouraging industrial agriculture, as it is already the largest contributor to America’s water pollution.[7]

Economists dislike the idea of billions dollars of taxpayer funded subsidies and insurance plans because it disrupts the free market and encourages wasteful and inefficient practices.[8] By removing many of the risks that are created in the free market, farmers can be more aggressive in their planting.  Further, economists are quick to point out that these subsides are unrivaled when compared to other sectors of the economy.[9] By removing many of the natural incentives of a free market, many economists say it creates a much less efficient system that hurts the American people.

Many farming organizations are disappointed with the farm bill because the funding is disproportionately disbursed to large industrial farms as opposed to family farmers.[10] These industrial farms, because of their size, have a louder voice and a stronger pull, which leads to the disparity in benefit distribution.  Further, farmers argue that farming is still a very risky venture, and farm programs in the Farm Bill ensure a stable supply of food for the country.[11]

Anti-hunger advocates argue that these huge subsidies artificially lower to price of American crops and makes it impossible for farmers in poor countries to compete.5  These farmers cannot compete with the artificially-reduced prices of their competition, and this puts their livelihood at stake.  In turn, this creates large-scale instability in food markets in the developing world, which can lead to catastrophic effects for these populations.[12]

Nutrition experts dislike the farm bill because they believe it strongly subsidizes the wrong types of agriculture.  The subsidies often are given to growers of corn, soybeans, cotton and rice, which are not the cornerstones of a healthy diet.[13] They argue that if the government is to provide subsidies, it should be for food that is good for our people.  They argue that these subsides should be given to organic farms growing healthy fruits and vegetables.  This would lower the cost of more healthy options and incentivize consumers to make more health-conscious decisions.[14] This would result in the advancement of other government goals such as battling our nation’s obesity epidemic, lower the cost of health care, and advance public health campaigns, such as “Let’s Move,” an initiative headed by Michelle Obama.[15]

Listening to the strong attacks from all angles, it might be easy to forget the many benefits of the Farm Bill.  The majority of the Bill’s finances are spent funding food stamp and other nutrition initiatives which help keep our population fed.[16] It is also responsible for the low price of many foods;  there was speculation that the price of milk would jump from $3.65 to $6-8 per gallon if the Farm Bill was allowed to expire.[17] Further, through many different means, it provides safety and stability to our national food markets (an otherwise terribly unpredictable sector), for both producers and consumers.[18] Throughout its history, the Bill has allowed American agriculture to produce enough food to meet the demand of our increasing population while requiring a much smaller portion of our workforce to be allocated to agriculture (currently about 1% of our population).

All of the criticisms of any proposed Farm Bill are amplified when put into context by the slowly improving economy and rapidly increasing national debt.  As we draw nearer to the September 30, 2013 ending date of the current extensions, expect the critical voices of the Bill to get louder and more passionate.

-Matt Evans is a General Member on MJEAL.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[1] Dan Charles, Farm Bill Critics Claim Partial Victory Despite Stalemate, The Salt, http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/01/08/168899109/partial-victory-claimed-even-as-farm-bill-reform-fails-again (last visited Feb. 10, 2013).

[2] Renée Johnson, Cong. Research Serv., RL34696, The 2008 Farm Bill: Major Provisions and Legislative Action.

[3] U.S. Farm Bill: Frequently Asked Questions, Snap to health, http://www.snaptohealth.org/farm-bill-usda/u-s-farm-bill-faq/ (last visited Feb. 18, 2013).

[4] Id.

[5] Secret Farm Bill Threatens an Environmental Cliff, Environmental Working Group Agriculture, http://www.ewg.org/agmag/2012/12/secret-farm-bill-threatens-an-“environmental-cliff”/ (last visited Feb. 10, 2013).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Charles, supra note 1.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] What Are the Impacts of U.S. Farm Policies on Developing Countries?, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, http://carnegieendowment.org/2007/06/27/what-are-impacts-of-u.s.-farm-policies-on-developing-countries/iwf (last visited Feb. 18, 2013).

[13] Charles, supra note 1.

[14] Id.

[15] Let’s Move (Our Thinking) on Childhood Obesity, Healthy Food Action, http://healthyfoodaction.org/?q=let’s-move-our-thinking-childhood-obesity (last visited Feb. 17, 2013).

[16] Food Stamps and the Farm Bill, NYTimes.com, (June 12, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/13/opinion/food-stamps-and-the-farm-bill.html.

[17] Ron Nixon, With Farm Bill Stalled, Consumers May Face Soaring Milk Prices, NYTimes.com, (Dec. 20, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/21/us/milk-prices-could-double-as-farm-bill-stalls.html.

[18] Id.