After failing to be renewed in 2012 and left to survive on a short term extension, the Farm Bill is again back on the floor of Congress. The bill has not made much buzz in the national media, but it is incredibly important to the national food system.
So what exactly is this bill, and why is it so important? The Farm Bill shapes the foundation of the US food system and provides key legislation on farming, food safety, land use, rural policy, and more. That may sound far reaching, and it should. This bill is a broad piece of legislation that controls everything from what farmers put in the ground to what you put in your mouth.
You may not realize it, but the Farm Bill impacts daily life more than you’d expect. It establishes what you eat, the price you pay for food, industrial farming practices on the environment, and the wellbeing of farmers.
Traditionally, the Farm Bill is renewed every 5 years or so and modified based on the framework of past bills. If it is not renewed or an extension is not approved, the law ‘snaps back’ to permanent provisions outlined in the 1938 and 1949 versions. This, to be frank, would be devastating (old laws usually don’t mix well with modern practices). Thankfully, this has never been the case, but the possibility is always looming when politicians cannot come to an agreement on how to fund the multi-billion dollar behemoth.
Although the majority of past bills have heavily favored commodity subsidies that help keep farmers afloat, recent Farm Bills have been increasingly favorable to organic farming, local food production, and the cultivation of more ‘specialty’ crops (i.e. fruits and veggies instead of commodity crops like corn, wheat, soy, and cotton). That’s good start and a trend that will hopefully continue, but much more could be done.
The current bill that is making its way through Congress mostly maintains the status quo, keeps in place many subsidies that will help big farms stay big, and continues the national dependency on those commodity crops. Unfortunately it also proposes large cuts to the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) that will leave many low income Americans without the means to feed their families.
Now, that is just a snapshot, as this bill is one of the most complex pieces of law there is out there. We’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars here! But as the debate heats up on Capitol Hill it will be interesting to see how the face of the US food system is painted for the next 5 years.