Why the Farm Bill Matters

Craig Donofrio — Break It Down

Despite its name, the farm bill doesn’t just impact farmers in the United States. This sprawling piece of legislation influences nearly every aspect of how food is produced and sold in our country—everything from agricultural regulation to environmental protections to public food assistance.

The farm bill comes under review every five years by both the U.S. Senate and House. While the latest Senate version largely mirrors the current farm bill, enacted in 2014, the House bill strips down social services and environmental protections, while simultaneously rolling back regulations for Big Agriculture.

Though it’s not the final version—committee discussions are expected soon to reconcile the House and Senate versions—the proposed House bill could end up changing the way we get our food for years to come.

Stripping SNAP

The House bill includes both hefty cuts to the nation’s primary food assistance program—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP—and stricter requirements for participants. If the House version goes through, more than 2 million people could lose benefits as more than $20 billion in cuts takes effect over the next decade. (Comparatively, the 2014 bill included an ongoing $8.6 billion cut over 10 years.) Last year, 42 million people, or 1 in 8 Americans, received SNAP benefits.

The House version also imposes more stringent work requirements for SNAP recipients, calling for able-bodied people between 18 and 59 years of age to either participate in job training or work a minimum of 20 hours a week to avoid being cut from the program for an entire year. House Speaker Paul Ryan said the SNAP changes will “close the skills gap, better equip our workforce, and encourage people to move from welfare to work, so more Americans have the opportunity to tap into the economic prosperity we’re seeing right now.”

But not everyone agrees with Ryan’s assessment. “This bill takes food away from people who can’t find 20 hours a week of work, and that’s not going to help them get better-paying jobs,” says Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C. “Workers, ironically, are the ones primarily targeted by this bill.”

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities research found that the new work requirements ultimately hurt people who have jobs, but still rely on food assistance to put food on the table. Many of these people have positions with fluctuating work hours, sometimes totaling less than 20 hours in a week, which could lead to them being cut from SNAP benefits. “You don’t have paid leave, so you take unpaid time off for work because of a crisis, or you get sick, or your boss cuts your hours. You’re putting [your family’s] food benefits at risk,” says Dean.

According to The Washington Post, the House version would require all able-bodied SNAP recipients to find work within one month of receiving benefits, with some exceptions for pregnant women and those with children under 6 years old. It also requires unemployed recipients to spend 20 hours per week in a state-run job training program. (The bill budgets $1 million per year to fund the job training program.)

Eliminating state agriculture protections

Food assistance makes up nearly 80 percent of the farm bill, but the legislation also has far-reaching implications for the wider American food economy.

“Many decisions made in the farm bill also have to do with what products are being grown, how they’re marketed, and ultimately what the pricing structure might look like,” says Jake Davis, a farmer near Millersburg, Missouri, and policy director for Family Farm Action, an organization that lobbies for small farmers’ rights.

One amendment to the House bill, the “Protect Interstate Commerce Act” introduced by Steve King, an Iowa House Republican, is of particular concern to Davis and other small farm lobbyists. Davis says it would essentially eliminate the ability of states to govern their own agricultural practices in any case where the products might be shipped across state lines. The amendment “might as well be called the End States’ Rights Act,” he says.

Under the amendment, states would lose the ability to regulate their own commodities. In turn, it would open the door for Big Ag to ship into the state, largely regulation-free. Civil Eats has a selection of state laws that protect local agriculture sales and could be affected by the amendment. For example, whisky made in Kentucky would no longer need to be aged one year in oak barrels, potentially weakening the entire Kentucky whisky industry. Some current state regulations also protect the environment. For example, bans on importing untreated firewood in states like New York were enacted because of pest infestations, and this amendment would wipe that out, according to Modern Farmer.

For Davis, the amendment isn’t a surprise.

“One of the things we’ve seen trending in agriculture is that as the market continues to consolidate, [big corporations] are squeezing rural communities and farmers. They can afford big corporate lobbyists to walk the halls on a regular basis,” he says.

This isn’t the first time this has been proposed. King tried, unsuccessfully, to get his big hug to Big Ag into the 2014 farm bill in a similar amendment, but it was taken out in the version that ultimately passed Congress. The Senate version doesn’t include the amendment.

The commerce amendment is just one piece of legislation in the massive bill that shifts the power away from local farmers in favor of corporate agriculture.

“There were enormous cuts to things like programs that benefit beginning farmers and the Local Food Promotion Program,” says Davis. The food promotion program offers grants for farmers to grow and distribute foods locally.

Cutting back on environmental conservation

Conservation programs also face budget cuts—$7 million over the next 10 years—under the House farm bill.

The bill calls for the Conservation Stewardship Program, which Davis calls “the premier conservation program in the country,” to be effectively eliminated by rolling it into something called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Currently, the conservation program provides funding and expertise to farmers to help them implement conservation and sustainability plans. More than 70 million acres of agricultural and forest land are enrolled in the program.

Opponents worry that combining the two programs will strangle the effectiveness of the government’s conservation efforts. According to the Sierra Club, the conservation program is “a lot stronger” than the environmental quality program because the latter only has farmers doing piecemeal good-for-the-environment projects, while the former “has farmers and ranchers fully adopting sustainable agriculture, not just doing little pieces here and there.”

The House farm bill also bodes well for the pesticide industry. According to EcoWatch, the bill would eliminate a requirement that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service review a pesticide’s impact on an endangered species before the Environmental Protection Agency can approve the pesticide.

Repealing the Obama-era Clean Water Rule and redefining which kinds of waters fall under federal pollution laws are also priorities of the House bill. According to ThinkProgress: “This means that a number of seasonal streams and wetlands would not be protected under federal pollution laws.”

Overall, the House bill would clear the way for huge corporate food producers by removing laws and regulations aimed at protecting the environment, small farmers, and consumers. “It would be a disaster for rural communities and family farmers,” says Davis. “It’s corporate handouts in most cases, and it cuts benefits for the most vulnerable.”

But there’s still hope. Once both bills reach committee we could see a lot of changes and possibly reach a more bipartisan agreement before the deadline September.