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Plowing Through the Farm Bill

Whoever first said that “the more you watch the news, the less you know” must have been thinking of how the media treat the Farm Bill. But now that we’re safely past the latest chapter of this ongoing story – a couple months back, Congress overrode a presidential veto to enact the Farm Bill of 2008 – we can make some sense out of it all.

Start with what the Farm Bill is and is not. Yes, it is indeed a $300 billion measure, as many stories have told us, including a widely circulated May 21 Associated Press story that reported on the Bush veto. But the latter report repeated a common error: it neglected to mention that the bill covers a five-year period (and some items in the bill actually cover ten years). So in terms of annual spending, which is the usual and most intelligible framework for understanding what’s in the federal budget, the bill runs to average of about $60 billion.

Yes, that’s still real money, but put it into perspective. It’s less than an eighth of the Pentagon budget, and much less even than the annual “supplemental” outlays in recent years for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Moreover, if we look at what’s actually in the bill and where the money goes, we find the bill is misnamed. Since two-thirds of the spending goes for Food Stamps (now gone higher-tech via debit cards) and other nutrition programs, we really should call it the Food Bill. This rhetorical shift would transfer the emphasis to tens of millions of American families directly impacted by provisions of the bill – and contradict the parochial view that the bill exists only to benefit special interests like the Farm Belt states, their Congressional delegations and lobbyists, and a constellation of corporatized commodity producers (corn, soy, cotton, etc.) who reap humongous subsidies.

Questions about subsidies surely need to be debated – for example, why many big farmers bring home a ton of bacon while small vegetable, fruit and dairy farms that could be saved from extinction by targeted assistance are put on a low-cal diet. But thanks to years of hard slogging by progressive advocates, there’s much in the Farm Bill to celebrate, starting with things that will benefit those small farms.

In its review of the bill, the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture (sustainableagriculture.net) has identified many provisions worth celebrating: an enhanced Rural Microenterprise Assistance Program to boost rural businesses through “micro-credit” (analogous to development strategies in South Asia, inspired by the work of economist Muhammad Yunus, co-winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize); more money for the Value-Added Producer Grant Program, with new targeted funds for small and medium-sized farms; more funding for the Farmers Market Promotion Program; mandatory funding for the Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers program, which includes technical and other forms of assistance; and similarly, a shot in the arm for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.

Many people, journalists and laypeople alike, wax indignant about spending for conservation programs – usually reduced to a shorthand phrase, encouraging farmers to “idle their land.” True, in worst-case scenarios this might translate to paying farmers for doing nothing. Yet the public has a real interest in conservation programs that help preserve topsoil, streambanks and watersheds, and other vital habitats/ecosystems. And the Farm Bill does some of this through its Conservation Security Program, which strikes a balance between “working farmland” and broad environmental values.

Last but not remotely least are the new Farm Bill’s supports for organic agriculture, the new and quickly sprouting kid on the block. The bill has some provisions to facilitate organic conversion (that is, moving land from conventional chemical methods to certifiably organic cultivation), including a cost-share program that helps small farmers cross that potentially expensive bridge. There’s also a four-year, $78-million Organic Agricultural Research and Extension Initiative, which will, among other things, help develop new seed varieties well-suited to organic ag. And a new “classical plant and animal breeding” initiative will help organic farmers’ efforts to save traditional strains of crops and livestock that conventional, industrialized ag has left to wither.

No legislation this massive and comprehensive can be all “wins,” of course. Organic advocates like the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture lists some notable losses, from a progressive point of view. For example, regarding contamination of crops by “genetically modified organisms,” which is an increasingly serious problem for organic farmers located near conventional farms, the bill failed to assign liability to those responsible for the contamination – namely, 800-pound companies like Monsanto that develop and patent the risky, aggressive genetic invaders.

So the next time you get news about the Farm Bill –  make that the Food Bill – remember there’s almost certainly more to the story than what you’re hearing. And if you deplore some of the bill’s priorities, remember that in many significant respects the bill is right on the money – and that much of the money will pay back the taxpayer many times over, in terms of environmental, personal, and community health.

JACK BRADIGAN SPULA is a Rochester (NY) based freelance writer and environmentalist who works with the Northeast Organic Farming Association (nofa.org). He can be reached at jbspula@yahoo.com.

 

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