Had it become law, the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act (aka the farm bill) that passed in the U.S. House last week, would have meant a divorce of sorts: a sordid end to the marriage of convenience between rural and urban lawmakers that has propped up U.S. agriculture for almost eighty years.
The House measure would have been the first farm bill in decades to exclude the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp program). It also would have made deep cuts in environmental initiatives, including the Conservation Reserve Program —which pays farmers to keep highly erodible land in native perennial vegetation— along with the Conservation Stewardship Program, while eliminating the Grasslands Reserve Program and Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program.
The bill is almost certain to be rejected by the Senate and, failing that, to suffer a promised veto by President Barack Obama; however, any compromise act that does eventually pass could well contain significant cuts in food and conservation programs.
Every five years or so since the 1970s, Congress has passed farm bill after farm bill with big majorities and little controversy, thanks to a broad base of support from three disparate constituencies: farmers, backed by grain traders, meatpackers, food processors and marketers, whose profits depend on the ample staple-crop production that is encouraged by farm subsidies; low-income American families, who depend on SNAP to make ends meet; and corporations for whom SNAP is a subsidy, because it helps employees and their families survive on lower wages.
On another side of the farm bill, environmental groups have pushed for provisions that would limit the ecological damage done by agriculture, especially soil erosion, and water pollution. If SNAP was to be spun off as separate legislation and conservation programs eliminated, agricultural supports and SNAP would be left vulnerable, each sitting on its own one-legged political stool.
We are not the only country facing these decisions. The global agricultural market has proven incapable of closing the gap between the crop prices farmers require to remain viable and the prices that many low-income households can afford to pay in highly unequal societies. Governments worldwide find it necessary to step in and close the gap. Even in the United States, —where there’s enough food to supply our entire requirement for calories and protein almost twice over— government intervention has long been necessary.
In America, programs for distributing actual foodstuffs or the means to buy them were designed to manage not scarcity but rather agricultural bounty. In 1935, at the height of the Great Depression, massive agricultural surpluses were driving down prices and bankrupting farmers, and the government in response bought up and distributed vast quantities of grains and other commodities as a support for prices. In the 1960s, the commodity distribution program was re-aimed more explicitly at food aid and less at farm aid, but its political support continued to come largely from farm states.
An early form of food-stamp distribution ran from 1939 until early 1943, ending at about the same time as the U.S. government expanded wartime food rationing. But the roots of today's SNAP lie in a pilot program that began in 1961. In the two decades leading up to the 2008 financial crash, a stingier Congress erected a series of increasingly stringent bureaucratic hurdles the purpose of which, according to legal scholar David Super, was to achieve “informal rationing” of benefits through the “personal choice model.” In other words, it became such a hassle to obtain assistance that many eligible applicants just decided it wasn't worth it.
In 2008, with the implosion of the American economy (and with, as a result, one in three people having become poor or “near-poor” and 15 percent of households rated food-insecure), the federal government began tearing down many of those obstacles. For example, most states relaxed SNAP’s eligibility rules, in order to catch families before they fall below the poverty line and exhaust all of their savings. States have developed “SNAP outreach plans” and hired recruiters to let poor and borderline-poor families know they are eligible. And some states are allowing food-stamp purchases at farmers markets. The expanded assistance was sorely needed, but expenditures leaped, raising the hackles of conservative lawmakers.
With the low diversity of crops being grown on large scales and processed into dubious food in America, ensuring access to food is not necessarily the same thing as promoting good nutrition. The D.C.-based Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress has suggested some practical enhancements to SNAP that would provide better access to improved nutrition while encouraging small-scale agriculture: protect and, if necessary, augment the program’s current funding; make children’s health a stronger focus (an approach suggested by the fact that an astonishing one out of every two young Americans will receive SNAP benefits at some point before turning nineteen); expand SNAP access at farmers markets, and encourage it by providing free or subsidized wireless terminals to handle the transactions; reduce the prices of nutrient-dense foods and provide incentives to buy them; and require stores, if they want to be certified as SNAP retailers, to stock more healthful foods and to market them more effectively.
But neither strengthening federal food assistance nor protecting and expanding conservation programs can fix all the problems of Big Ag. We need an agricultural policy that does a full U-turn, reversing the decades-long trend toward larger farms, fewer farmers, and concentration on a handful of commodity crops dependent on heavy industrial inputs. We need not another five-year farm bill but a Fifty-Year Farm Bill that joins agriculture and ecology— not in a marriage of convenience but in a marriage of necessity.
Photos by Stan Cox
Stan Cox is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., and author most recently of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing (The New Press, 2013).