The US Farm Bill

Introduction

Introduction 

THE US FOOD SYSTEM IS DEFINED as all the practices, processes, and infrastructure required to feed the US population, including agricultural production, harvesting, processing, packaging, distribution, consumption, and disposal, as well as the inputs required and outputs produced at each stage. 

Socially, economically, politically, and environmentally, the US food system has become characterized by widespread inequity. While corporations control agricultural production and prices, and enjoy record profits, many farmers cannot make a living, are increasingly vulnerable to price fluctuations, and struggle for market access in increasingly concentrated commodity markets. While corporations reap the benefits of an overworked and underpaid work force, both on and off the field, many consumers, including food system workers themselves, do not have access to nutritious and affordable foods. Additionally, soil degradation, water pollution, and global climate change continue to advance, in part due to large-scale industrial agriculture. 

The US food system today, however, is not only characterized by social, economic, political, and environmental inequity. It is also characteristic of a society that itself produces inequity in every domain of life. Our research indicates that inequity within the food system—such as limited access to nutritious and affordable food, high quality land, or farmers support program benefits—cannot be addressed without addressing inequity within society as a whole, such as low income and limited employment benefits, unfair treatment by public institutions, and limited access to positions of power. Of central concern within this report, therefore, are corporate control and structural racialization within the US food system and society as a whole. 

Significantly, the production of racial/ethnic and economic inequity in the United States, particularly in terms of wealth, land access, access to positions of power, and degree of democratic influence, is more so a product of cumulative and structural forces than of individual actions or malicious intent on behalf of private or public actors. To challenge and eliminate corporate control and structural racialization in the United States, it is necessary to analyze the ways that public and private institutions are structured, and how government programs are administered and operate in such a way that that reproduces outcomes that marginalize low-income communities and communities of color. Additionally, it is crucial to analyze the genesis and formation of institutions and structures themselves.8

CORPORATE CONTROL The control of political and economic systems by corporations in order to influence trade regulations, tax rates, and wealth distribution, among other measures, and to produce favorable environments for further corporate growth. 

STRUCTURAL RACIALIZATION Refers to the set of practices, cultural norms, and institutional arrangements that are reflective of, and help to create and maintain, racialized outcomes in society—reinforcing groupbased advantages and disadvantages. 

THE FARM BILL

The US Farm Bill has been the flagship legislation of food and agriculture since its inception in 1933 and is at the heart of policies implemented by public and private institutions that comprise most of the US food system. As such, structural change requires a strong and united movement that is capable of organizing and mobilizing at the state and national level, and that aims to produce conditions required for food sovereignty, including food access, health equity, fair and living wages, land access, just immigration policy, restraints upon corporations, non-exploitative farm labor conditions, and environmental well-being, among others, in particular, and racial/ethnic, gender, and economic justice more broadly. It also reflects a prime opportunity to address corporate structural racialization at multiple scales: from the scale of the food system to that of society itself. As such, structural change requires a strong and united movement that is capable of organizing and mobilizing at the national level, and that aims to produce the conditions that would guarantee food sovereignty, including food access, health equity, fair wages, land access, just immigration policy, restraints upon corporations, non-exploitative farm labor conditions, and environmental well-being, among others. Such a movement would thus need to encompass grassroots and advocacy organizations that are anti-capitalist, new economy, anti-racist, and feminist, and that are oriented toward environmental justice, labor rights, immigration rights, food justice, climate justice, and human rights, among other strategies and goals. Toward this end, the US Farm Bill is a challenging, yet promising, target for structural change within such a movement.9

This report is of particular importance for two reasons. First, the Farm Bill will be under consideration again in 2019, yet there is no comprehensive critique of the Farm Bill that addresses its underlying contradictions, particularly with regard to racial/ethnic, gender, and economic inequity. Second, it is imperative that campaigns by grassroots, community, and advocacy organizations—generally most active during the period of Farm Bill negotiations in Congress—have enough time to gather adequate information and conduct in-depth analysis for targeted yet comprehensive policy change. As such, the timing of this report is also imperative for coalition-building efforts and the growth of an effective broad-based food sovereignty movement.

UNDERSTANDING THE FARM BILL

The Farm Bill is a multi-year omnibus bill and the preeminent piece of food and agriculture legislation in the United States. The Farm Bill establishes and maintains federal support for agricultural production, nutrition programs like SNAP,[iii] conservation programs, rural development programs, and more. These programs are then operated in large part through the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). On February 7, 2014, President Obama signed into law the Agricultural Act of 2014, also known as the 2014 US Farm Bill. 

This infographic includes a chart of 2014 US Farm Bill Spending by Title

In terms of structure, the food and agricultural provisions and programs of the Farm Bill are divided into overarching categories called “titles.” These titles are not static and can change between Farm Bills during the re-authorization process. The 2008 Farm Bill had 15 titles, for example, while the 2014 Farm Bill has 12 titles: commodities, conservation, trade, nutrition, credit, rural development, research, forestry, energy, horticulture, crop insurance, and miscellaneous. In terms of scale, the 2014 Farm Bill provided $489 billion in mandatory spending for all titles over the next five years and $956 billion in mandatory spending until 2024. Among the titles of the 2014 Farm Bill, programs under the nutrition title are the largest, accounting for 80% of spending. Nutrition is followed by crop insurance, which accounts for 8% of spending; conservation, which accounts for 6% of spending; and commodity programs, which account for 5% of spending. The remaining 1% of spending includes trade subsidies, rural development, research, forestry, energy, livestock, and horticulture/organic agriculture. 

Finally, in terms of the process itself, the Farm Bill comes up for renewal approximately every five years. Congressional negotiations on the composition of the bill typically take between two to three years. Many interest groups and corporations shape the Farm Bill by way of lobbying, campaign donations, and other such efforts. Though they vary greatly by their degrees of influence, such actors include large retailers and food manufacturers (e.g., Walmart and Coca-Cola), suppliers and manufacturers of agricultural inputs (e.g., Cargill, Monsanto, DuPont), members of government and special interest groups (e.g., key industry groups include the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Corn Growers Association, and the International Dairy Foods Association), as well as a diverse set of advocacy organizations (e.g., the Center for Rural Affairs, the Environmental Working Group, and the Food Research and Action Center, among others). Typically, it is corporate interests and actors that have had the greatest influence in pushing for specific language and policies that advance their respective interests in the Farm Bill.

FARM BILL TITLE AND PROGRAM FUNDING: 2014 VERSUS 2008

Title I: Commodity Programs

$44.5 billion over 10 years—$14.3 billion less than existing law

The commodity title includes several programs that aim to protect farmers against sharp fluctuations in prices on primary commodity crops (e.g., corn, wheat, soybean, cotton, rice, peanut) and to keep production relatively profitable. In previous years, the commodity title was primarily geared towards providing large “direct payments” to farmers regardless of how much they actually planted or for how much they would sell their crops. The 2014 Farm Bill cut most of these direct payments by about $19 billion over 10 years, which was the most drastic policy change in this current Farm Bill. Much of this money has gone into other types of farm aid, particularly disaster assistance for livestock producers, subsidized loans for farmers, and the crop insurance program. For example, the 2014 Farm Bill abandoned the 70-year-old practice of setting minimum prices for milk, cheese, and butter, and instead invested in insurance for dairy farmers to protect themselves against price volatility or rising feed costs. Significantly, the shift toward crop insurance programs has largely benefitted private insurance corporations, banks, and the largest producers more than small and mid-sized farmers.10

Title II: Conservation Programs

$57.6 billion over 10 years—$4 billion less than existing law

The conservation title includes programs to help farmers protect against environmental degradation (e.g., soil erosion) and maintain their means of production through the use of sustainable management practices. The conservation title also includes programs that pay farmers to retire some of their land, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, the largest land retirement program in the United States. The $4 billion cut in the conservation title in the 2014 Farm Bill marks the first time Congress has voted to reduce conservation spending since the title first entered the Farm Bill in 1985. In every Farm Bill since then—1990, 1996, 2002, and 2008—funding for the conservation title has increased. 

Title III: Trade Programs

$3.57 billion over 10 years—similar to existing law

Trade funding is used to promote US commodity crops and food aid abroad as well as technical assistance to farmers in developing countries. Although President Obama suggested an overhaul of the food aid program—aiming to replace the processes of selling US-produced food to developing countries with direct payments to developing countries—such reform efforts did not take hold and Congress kept the food-aid program intact. The lack of change in the trade title reflects the maintenance of a global trade structure produced by and designed to benefit transnational agribusiness corporations as well as US influence abroad.

Title IV: Nutrition Programs

$756.4 billion over 10 years—$8.7 billion less than existing law

The nutrition title has long been the largest title in the Farm Bill and continues to account for more than two-thirds of Farm Bill spending. Several nutrition assistance programs are authorized in the Farm Bill, such as SNAP, the nation’s largest and most significant domestic anti-hunger program. Although the newest 2014 Farm Bill reauthorized SNAP, Congress cut $8.7 billion from the program, reducing benefits for 48 million people—including more than 21 million children—in 850,000 households across the United States. Households affected by the $8.7 billion cut will lose an average of $90 per month in benefits. The SNAP cuts come at a time when 49 million people—about 14.5% of all US households—are food insecure.11 These cuts would impact the country’s most marginalized populations: women, who are almost twice as likely as men (23% vs. 12%) to have received SNAP benefits at some point in their lives; Blacks, who are over twice as likely as whites (31% vs. 15%) to have received SNAP benefits; and Native Americans (26%) and Latinos/as (22%), both major SNAP recipients as well.12

Title V: Credit Programs

$2.24 billion over 10 years—similar to existing law

The 2014 Farm Bill made relatively small adjustments to the permanent statutes of the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Farm Credit System (FCS), two types of farm lenders. The Farm Bill gave the USDA the ability to recognize non-conventional legal entities to qualify for farm loans. It also eliminated term limits for guaranteed operating loans, increased the maximum size of down-payment loans, and increased the percentage of guaranteed conservation loans. Finally, the 2014 Farm Bill included an additional lending priority for beginning farmers, and facilitates loans for the purchase of highly fractionated land in Native American reservations, among other changes.

Title VI: Rural Development Programs

$240 million over 10 years—similar to existing law

Under the rural development title, an important poverty alleviation title, there are provisions for rural equity capital development, regional economic planning and development, essential community facilities, water and wastewater infrastructure needs, value-added agricultural development, broadband telecommunications development, and more. Since 2008, many local food promotion and organic food promotion monies were put here. The 2014 Farm Bill, in particular, expands high-speed broadband access in rural areas, creates a new rural energy savings program, establishes a program for strategic economic and community development, and consolidates several existing business development grants into a broader program of business development grants.

Title VII: Research & Extension Programs

$1.26 billion over 10 years—$120 million less than existing law

The USDA is authorized to conduct federal-level agricultural research, and to provide state-level support for research, extension, and agricultural education programs. The 2014 Farm Bill reauthorizes funding for these activities yet amended authority so that only competitive grants can be awarded under certain programs. Additionally, mandatory spending for the research title increased for several programs, such as the Organic Agricultural Research and Extension Initiative and the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, and continued for other programs, such as the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.

Title VIII: Forestry Programs

$10 million over 10 years—similar to existing law

Past Farm Bills have included provisions addressing forestry assistance, especially on private lands. The 2014 Farm Bill generally repeals, reauthorizes, and modifies existing programs and provisions under two main authorities: the Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act (CFAA), as amended, and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 (HFRA), as amended. Many federal forestry assistance programs are permanently authorized, and thus do not require reauthorization in the Farm Bill. The bill also includes provisions that foster improved management of the National Forest System, such as the authorization of the designation of areas within the National Forest System that are of deteriorating health and require treatment.

Title IX: Energy Programs

$1.1 billion over 10 years—$120 million less than existing law

This is the third time the energy title has appeared in the Farm Bill since its introduction in 2002. The primary programs from this legislation include the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which partners with farmers to develop new biofuels; the Biorefinery Assistance Program, which supports biofuels research and development by assisting US companies in securing more than $450 million in private capital for biofuel projects; and the Renewable Energy for America Program (REAP) that aims to support renewable energy jobs in rural parts of the country. 

Title X: Horticulture Programs

$1.76 million over 10 years—similar to existing law

The horticulture title of the Farm Bill deals primarily with marketing and promotion; data and information collection; food safety and quality standards; pest and disease control; as well as support for local foods. The most significant programs that support specialty crop producers in particular are the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and its Plant Pest and Disease Prevention Programs; data collection and Market News compilations; as well as the Farmer’s Market and Local Food Promotion Program. Significantly, this title also includes the USDA’s flagship National Organic Program and other provisions that benefit certified organic agriculture producers. However, most boosts to organic agriculture under the 2014 Farm Bill—from the $100 million of mandatory research funds dedicated towards projects tailored specifically to organic agriculture, to the additional $30 million over a decade in subsidies for organic certification—took place under other titles.

Title XI: Crop Insurance Programs

$89.8 million over 10 years—similar to existing law

The primary purpose of the federal crop insurance program is to offer subsidized crop insurance to producers who purchase a policy to protect against losses in yield, as well as crop revenue and whole farm revenue. Significantly, more than 100 crops are insurable. The 2014 Farm Bill increased funding for crop insurance, primarily for two new insurance products: the Stacked Income Protection (STAX) for cotton (in part because cotton is not covered by the counter-cyclical price or revenue programs established in Title I) and the Supplemental Coverage Option (SCO) for other crops. Ultimately, with the decline in projected spending for Title I (Commodities), and the increase for Title XI (Crop Insurance), the 2014 Farm Bill underwent a decline of $8.59 billion in spending on the farm “safety net."

Title XII: Miscellaneous programs

$2.36 billion over 10 years—$950 million more than existing law

Under the Farm Bill, the miscellaneous title includes various provisions affecting research, jobs training, and socially disadvantaged and limited resource producers, as well as livestock production and oil heat efficiency, among other provisions. The 2014 Farm Bill extended authority for outreach and technical assistance programs for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, expanded support for military veteran farmers and ranchers, and created a research center to develop policy recommendations for socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers. Finally, it reauthorized funding for the USDA Office of Advocacy and Outreach for socially disadvantaged and veteran farmers and ranchers, and mandated receipts for service or denial of service in order to increase transparency.

REPORT OUTLINE

Each part of this report addresses a key element of the US food system and the Farm Bill in terms of corporate control, structural racialization, and social, political, economic, and environmental inequity. The report is structured along the following sections.

  • Part I addresses corporate power in the US food system, and outlines the Food Bill’s long term shift from the subsidization of production and consumption to the subsidization of agribusiness itself. It also addresses how low-income communities and communities of color have fared during the shift, and how they have fared with regard to US food and agriculture policy more broadly.
  • Part II examines the relationship between food insecurity, public assistance, poverty, and structural racialization. It focuses on the value of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), particularly during times of economic hardship, and considers the long term viability of SNAP as an anti-poverty tool.
  • Part III focuses on how low-income communities and communities of color have fared with regard to three federal rural and agricultural support programs: Farm Service Agency (FSA) lending programs, Farm Bill commodity programs, and Farm Bill rural development programs.
  • Part IV examines both the effects of global climate change on low-income communities and communities of color, as well as the impact that conservation and sustainable agriculture programs have inadvertently had on such communities. It focuses on four federal rural and agricultural support programs: the Conservation Reserve Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program, organic agriculture programs, and outreach and assistance programs—as well as recent corporate-backed trends in increased biofuel production.
  • The conclusion posits short- and long term interventions, and presents a call for a broadbased food sovereignty movement to push for transformative change of the food system as well as of society itself.