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New Farm Bill Could Undermine Conservation, Nutrition

| 7/15/2013 2:56:00 PM

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.field

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.

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