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The Farm Bill Debate
Farm and Cash
Comment
November 28, 2008

In April 2008, BILL MOYERS JOURNAL and EXPOSÉ: AMERICA'S INVESTIGATIVE REPORTS followed the trail of WASHINGTON POST reporters who uncovered more than $15 billion in "wasteful, unnecessary, or redundant expenditures" that have flowed from Washington to America's farmers — monies distributed in "the Farm Bill." By April 18, 2008 the huge spending bill commonly know as The Farm Bill had to be reauthorized by Congress and, against objections of the administration and many other sectors — the bill passed.

JOURNAL guest Michael Pollan says the problem with the Farm Bill are deeply embedded in our culture and politics:

If you fill your Agriculture Committee with with representatives of commodity farmers and you don't have urbanites, you don't represent eaters, okay? You don't have people from New York City on these committees you are going to end up with the kind of farm bills we have, a piece of special interest legislation. It shouldn't even be called the Farm Bill. It should be called the Food Bill. It's about us. It's not just about them. You need to represent health interests on that committee.
The "Farm Bill" encompasses so many programs and payouts that its fans and foes don't fall into predictable camps — find out more below.

The first major farm subsidies grew out of the Depression and Dust Bowl, when in 1933 the government began paying "parity" price roughly equal to what prices should be during favorable market times.

As "Cash Cows and Cowboy Starter Kits" from EXPOSÉ illustrates, some of the subsidies in the current iteration of the bill don't go to the stereotypical small American farmer — or even to farmers at all. And, budget trimmers and foreign trading partners have long been critical of many subsides in the farm bill. Here's what THE WALL STREET JOURNAL has to say about the current Farm Bill process:

With grain prices soaring, farm income at record highs and the federal budget deficit widening, the subsidies and handouts given to American farmers would seem vulnerable to a serious pruning.

But it appears that farmers, at least so far, have succeeded in stopping the strongest effort in years to shrink the government safety net that doles out billions of dollars to them each year. --"Bountiful Harvest: Farm Lobby Beats Back Assault On Subsidies," THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, March 27, 2008

Other elements of the Farm Bill have vocal advocates because the bill also will refund food aid programs. David Beckmann's Bread for the World is a member of a coalition of groups pressing for the reauthorization. These groups are hoping that a new bill configuration in which a $9.5 billion increase for nutrition over 10 years is included.

And then, there are the international and environmental concerns. The head of World Bank chastised some agribusinesses and farmers stating: "Demand for ethanol and other biofuels is a 'significant contributor' to soaring food prices around the world." At the same time, THE NEW YORK TIMES reports that some American farmers are prepared to forgo the subsidies that kept lands out of cultivation because of the higher commodity prices:

Thousands of farmers are taking their fields out of the government's biggest conservation program, which pays them not to cultivate. They are spurning guaranteed annual payments for a chance to cash in on the boom in wheat, soybeans, corn and other crops. Last fall, they took back as many acres as are in Rhode Island and Delaware combined. -- "As Prices Rise, Farmers Spurn Conservation Program," David Streitfeld, THE NEW YORK TIMES, April 9, 2008.
This in turn, worries environmentalists who contend that progress restoring native habitats will be lost.

Find out more about the history of American Farm Bills, and the ongoing debate over the the legislation below.

Published on November 28, 2008.

Related Media:
ExposeExposé on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL: Mr. Heath Goes to Washington
The broadcast profiles SEATTLE TIMES reporters on the trail of how members of Congress have awarded federal dollars for questionable purposes to companies in local Congressional districts—often to companies whose executives, employees or PACs have made campaign contributions to their legislators.

Iraqi refugeesCan Washington Change?
Can the stranglehold of money on politics be broken? Bill Moyers sits down with Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, and Bob Edgar, president and CEO of Common Cause, to discuss how Beltway business as usual may stand in the way of real change in Washington. October 31, 2008

References and Reading:
Farm Bill History

The National Agricultural Law Center
The National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas maintains a comprehensive collection of information on all aspects of agricultural law, including an extensive historical and contemporary look at Farm Bills.

American Agriculture: Its Changing Significance, U.S. Department of State
Get a brief history of federal farm policy.

Farm Bill Debate

America's Second Harvest "As the cost of food and fuel reaches record highs, lines are growing longer and shelves are growing emptier at food banks and emergency feeding organizations nationwide. Hope for low-income Americans depends on enactment of a strong nutrition title in the Farm Bill, but that critical piece of legislation has been stalled in Congress for months, while millions of Americans have remained stuck in the grip of hunger."

Bountiful Harvest: Farm Lobby Beats Back Assault On Subsidies," THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, March 27, 2008.
The JOURNAL article also includes an interactive graphic illustrating project farm subsidies by state if the current bill is reauthorized.

The CATO Institute: Agriculture
The CATO Institute suggests "Congress should seize the opportunity presented by the drafting of a new farm bill in 2007 to fundamentally reshape U.S. agricultural policy in a more market-friendly direction."

"House Members Join Conservation Groups Against Cutting Farm Bill Conservation," Jason Vance, MID-SOUTH FARMER,April 4, 2008.
"Several members of the House of Representatives joined with the Environmental Working Group and other conservation organizations Thursday to discuss the proposed permanent agricultural disaster assistance program in the Farm Bill. According to the group, funding for this program would eliminate about $1 billion from the conservation title of the bill, a move that is unacceptable to them."

The Farm Bureau
The Farm Bureau is a national advocacy organization for farmers and ranchers.

"Long Time In Germination: The Farm Bill," THE ECONOMIST, March 27th 2008.
"With farm incomes high and commodity prices at record peaks, this season looked ripe for reform. Instead, the House passed a bill that failed to cut subsidies significantly and bought off potential opposition from urban Democrats with spending on a range of social and environmental programmes. Mr Bush has been trying to put his foot down."

Mulch: Farm Bill 2007
The Environmental Working Group's database tracks farm subsidies throughout the nation. It also provides extensive analysis and background information.

"New farm law hinges on antihunger programs," Charles Abbott, THE WASHINGTON POST, April 3, 2008.
The POST reports on the negotiations between lawmakers in both chambers related to a $9.5 billion increase for nutrition funds in the Farm Bill reauthorization.

"Stuck on the Farm," Editorial, THE WASHINGTON POST, March 9, 2008.
"While food prices soar, Congress dithers over agricultural subsidies."

Taxpayers for Common Sense
Budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense is a critic of the current Farm Bill structure: "Outdated and ineffective farm policies waste billions of federal funds and no longer reflect the realities of 21st century agriculture."

"We'll reap what we sow," Daniel Imhoff, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, April 10, 2008
Opinion piece subtitled: "The farm bill is loaded with pork and environmentally disastrous provisions."

Global Issues

"World Bank Chief: Biofuels Boosting Food Prices," NPR, April 11, 2008
Includes an extended interview with Robert Zoellick discusses the impact of high food prices on countries that have otherwise stable governments.

"Food for Thought: Famine, farm prices and aid." THE ECONOMIST, Mar 27th 2008
Perspective from THE ECONOMIST on the effect of rising commodity prices on world relief organizations.


Also This Week:

MICHAEL POLLAN
Bill Moyers sits down with Michael Pollan, Knight Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley, to discuss what direction the U.S. should pursue in the often-overlooked question of food policy. Pollan is author of IN DEFENSE OF FOOD: AN EATER'S MANIFESTO.

CHANGING THE WAY WE EAT
Discover innovative schemes aiming to change the way our nation eats. View Will Allen, of Growing Power, a pioneer in the urban farming movement in action. Find out about what Alice Waters, international-known chef and sustainable farm advocate, is hoping to see on the White House Lawn. And take a virtual visit to one of artist Fritz Haeg's Edible Estates.

VOTING WITH YOUR FORK
Find out simple ways that you can change the world one meal at a time.

OUR DAILY BREAD — HUNGER RESOURCES MAP
Why are America's food banks suffering shortages? Find out what you can do to help.

DEBATING THE FARM BILL
Is it a farm bill or a food bill? What's behind the debate over American farm policy.

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