Dave Carter

Farm bill signals a new day in farm politics

The newest farm bill provides reason to believe that the agricultural tide is shifting in favor of the natural and organic sectors. 

The drama didn’t quite rise to the level of puffs of white smoke from a Vatican chimney, but the cry from Washington D.C. this week echoed throughout the farmlands and food processing plants of the country: “We have a farm bill!”

Passing a farm bill is a process that has played out about every four to seven years since the late 1940s.

True to the spirit of gridlocked government, lawmakers in the House and Senate this time around spent more than two years arguing over the latest version of a comprehensive bill. House Republicans wanted steep cuts in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – formerly food stamp) benefits. Senate Democrats wanted an overhaul of commodity subsidy policies. The Senate and House each passed versions that the other chamber detested. Only two quickly-passed extensions kept the 2008 law ticking along until Congress could finally come to terms on a new Farm Bill.

So, the announcement that negotiators had hammered out a compromise acceptable to both chambers was hailed as a much-needed show of bipartisan cooperation. 

On the surface, those pundits are right. House Republicans agreed to smaller cuts in SNAP. Senate Democrats signed off on an expansion of the federally-subsidized crop insurance program as a replacement for direct commodity payments.

A dive into the Farm Bill’s 959 pages, though, reflects a significant realignment of farm politics that has little to do with political parties. And it could be good news for the natural and organic sectors.

I'll elaborate. 

In the livestock arena, the battle lines were drawn over the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law, originally enacted in the 2008 farm bill. Meat processors and major livestock groups have chafed under the requirements forcing them to include the countries of origin on retail packages of meat, poultry and seafood. Many U.S. cattle ranchers, however, embrace COOL as a way to differentiate their products from foreign imports. Consumer groups agreed.

The large livestock groups appeared to have an upper hand when the World Trade Organization in 2012 ruled that the original COOL constituted an illegal protectionist measure. But when the dust settled last week, lawmakers left COOL largely unchanged.

Similarly, Rep. Steve King (R-IA), chair of an important House Agriculture Subcommittee, wrote a provision aimed at stopping implementation of California’s Proposition 2, which requires any eggs sold within that state to come from flocks that meet the voter-enacted provisions for space allotted to caged layers.  In the end, King ended up with egg on his face as the provision was stripped.

While the major ag groups were fighting it out in the hallways of Congress and on the airwaves or the rural media, the Organic Trade Association and other interests patiently set the groundwork for important new organic initiatives. The new farm bill increases funding for the USDA National Organic Program, makes organic farmers eligible for federal crop insurance, and protects funding for organic research, cost share and data collection. The bill even opens the way for a referendum to establish an organic research and promotion program.

Even as SNAP funding was pared, lawmakers added a provision to increase the access that low-income consumers have to healthy food by establishing a program that will allow farmers markets to double the value of SNAP benefits redeemed at the markets.  

Farm Bills have long been criticized as tools for subsidizing corporate agriculture. But this latest version may signal the beginning of a change.

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