Farm Bill shaping up to be a food fight

There might be one heck of a food fight before the Farm Bill is said and done. Photo: Some rights reserved.

There might be one heck of a food fight before the Farm Bill is said and done. Photo: Some rights reserved.

The Senate Agriculture committee passed a nearly $100 billion a year Farm Bill this afternoon, 15-5. One of the Senators who voted against it was New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who's leading a fight to restore all of the $400 million annual proposed cuts to the $80 billion a year food stamp program. According to her press release:

Just as important as the health of our agriculture industry, is the health and nutrition of our children and families. I am deeply concerned with the drastic cuts this bill makes to SNAP that will literally take food away from hungry children, while protecting corporate welfare for insurance companies based in Bermuda, Australia and Switzerland who don't need it.

That "corporate welfare" Gillibrand is referring to is the new crop insurance program that replaces "direct payments", otherwise known as farm subsidies. Gillibrand wants to trim the crop insurance program to avoid those food stamp cuts.

But her fellow Democrat, committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, said the shift from direct payments to crop insurance represents a major reform. "We were able to save tax dollars while investing in initiatives that help boost exports, help family farmers sell locally and spur innovations in new bio-manufacturing and bio-energy industries," Stabenow said in a press release.

And here we have the two fault lines that will shape whether the Farm Bill passes Congress this year: food stamps and crop insurance/subsidies.

House leadership wants much deeper cuts to food stamps – more like $2 billion a year. It's the desire for those cuts that kept the House version of the bill from ever reaching the floor last year.

And while the crop insurance program replaces the direct payments program (which paid farmers no matter what they planted), Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group, a progressive group, argues it's not much different from a subsidy that still favors the wealthy:

Under current law, there is no limit on who can receive premium support or the amount they can receive. As a result, 26 policyholders received more than $1 million apiece in crop insurance premium support in 2011, and more than 10,000 policyholders received more than $100,000 each. By contrast, the bottom 80 percent of farm businesses received only about $5,000 apiece to help them purchase insurance policies.

On the Right, many conservatives are upset with the crop insurance and an addition to this year's bill that provides price supports for rice and peanut farmers. Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas lamented, according to the Associated Press, "I don’t know how we can justify this." He called the price supports "income transfer", not "risk management."

Supporters hope the Farm Bill will pass much as it always has, with a "strange bedfellows" coalition of urban Democrats that support food stamps and rural lawmakers of either party who represent farm states.

But the calculus is different today, with increased pressure to slash budgets and reduce the deficit.

So Farm Bill junkies – what do you think? Will the Farm Bill pass? Do you want it to?

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  1. Kirsten Gillibrand's point is that we could reduce insurance supports slightly in order to fund food stamps at higher levels. This would still leave insurance companies making a huge profit, still cushion the vagaries of year to year agricultural production, and still provide food to needy urban poor (and dollars to grocers). Its really only the pain is good crowd that likes this bill as it is.

    • It'll be interesting if the main stream media picks up or even discusses the guaranteed percentage profit the current bill provides for the insurance industry. So far the only place I've seen it even mentioned was a quote from Senator Gillibrand that was included in an interview placed on the NCPR website. Maybe I've missed it but I've yet to hear or read this anywhere else.

      In my opinion, a 14% guarantee is absurd and yet another corporate give away that's been all too common with the Ag bill for going on decades now.