The much entrenched, long-delayed, massively complex farm bill passed Congress yesterday. President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law shortly. Under its umbrella, the farm bill sets policy for the next five years on issues as varied as food assistance for the needy, crop insurance for farmers, and environmental conservation.
The bill will cost the federal government $956.4 billion over the course of the next 10 years, although that still represents a savings compared to the previous bill's provisions.
Here are the three big take-aways.
Crop subsidies stay, but in a different way
Although the bill cuts some direct crop subsidies, it may not reduce how much money is paid out to farmers. The government will continue to subsidize crop insurance programs, which are run by 18 private companies in the U.S. The government pays for 62 percent of farmers' insurance premiums, and insurers managed to get rid of a provision that in the past allowed the government to negotiate lower rates over the lifetime of the bill.
“Instead of getting a government check even in good times, farmers will pay an insurance bill every year and will only receive support from that insurance in years when they take a loss,” Senator Debbie Stabenow told The New York Times. Stabenow is the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and an author of the bill. The bill also creates new subsidies for rice and peanuts.
A number of environmental groups have decried the continued crop subsidies, which they say favor big ag. "It will create new, expanded and largely unlimited crop insurance subsidies for the largest and most successful farm operations at the expense of family farmers and the environment," Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group said in a statement.
Food stamps take a cut
Deep cuts to the food stamp program, which helps feed low-income families, were called for by conservatives trying to reduce government spending. In the end, Democrats and Republicans compromised on an $8 billion reduction over the next 10 years. On one hand, this amounts to about 1 percent of the program's annual spending. On the other hand, the cuts will reduce aid to 850,000 American households.
More money for soil protection, but less for overall conservation
One piece of good news is that the farm bill will create new programs to fight soil erosion, and cuts subsidies for farmers who plow virgin land. However, overall spending for agricultural conservation efforts has been reduced.
Furthermore, many environmentally-minded people see this as a wasted opportunity. Mark Bittman writes that the bill doesn't address the public policies it should, such as "encouragement and support for would-be new farmers and small farmers; 'conservation' in the form of agriculture that doesn’t seek to defeat nature; increased funding for research into sustainable agriculture." Again, big conventional agriculture wins out over more sustainable growers and environmental interests.
Bonus Yay: Lobbyists failed to get rid of mandatory country of origin labeling regulations and the King Amendment was dropped from the final bill, which could have been bad news for preventing animal cruelty.
Bonus Boo: Congress dropped a provision that would require its own members to disclose if they personally receive farm subsidies.