Among the vital public policy issues postponed until after the election, and now awaiting action by the lame-duck Congress, is the so-called farm bill. We observe that “farm bill” is a somewhat misleading moniker that likely distracts the public and elected officials alike.
The fact is that some two-thirds of the dollars spent by farm bill programs in recent years were for nutrition programs, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
The federal farm bill, directly and indirectly, influences many aspects of life for all of us. We should pay more attention to this debate and weigh in with our federal policymakers.
It was disappointing to hear a highly regarded congressman from one of our suburban areas admit that he did not pay much attention to the farm bill as he seemed to suggest that this was just a rural issue.
In addition to providing food safety nets for needy Americans and supporting school lunch programs, the farm bill has a tremendous influence on what, where, and how crops are grown. It heavily influences what we eat and how our food is processed. It has become among the most critical conservation and environmental issues.
In recent years the fastest-growing feature of the farm program has been crop insurance. The crop insurance that farmers have available is far beyond what most of us think of as typical insurance. In addition to insuring against drought, flood or other natural disaster, the typical policy guarantees a yield and a price. This insurance would be unaffordable but for the fact that we pay for more than 60 percent of the premiums with our federal taxes.
With current high commodity prices and risk elimination with crop insurance it is not surprising that grasslands are being plowed up, wetlands being drained and highly erodible marginal lands being planted. At the same time, we are seeing reductions in land set-aside programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that have done so much for conservation and habitat protection the past quarter century.
The effect will be increased water pollution from agricultural runoff of phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment exacerbating everything from the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Winnipeg to algae blooms in our lakes, rivers and streams.
One of the major debates pending is whether to make “conservation compliance” a condition of eligibility for the federally subsidized crop insurance. This would require that the farmer adhere to minimal conservation standards in order to afford some protection to water bodies and erodible grasslands. The farm bill that has passed the Senate features conservation compliance as a condition of eligibility for federally subsidized crop insurance. The version that is pending on the floor of the House of Representatives does not contain this critical provision. We believe the Senate approach is much preferable.
Most notably, we think it is important that all of us, no matter where we live, become familiar with the farm bill and its implications, and we should insist on the same of our federal elected officials.
This editorial is a product of the ECM Editorial Board.