Statement by Mark Dunlea, Hunger Action Network of NYS, On House Passage of Farm Bill

Farm Bill Cuts Funding for Hunger; Favors Agribusiness and Unhealthy Foods; Environmentalists Lose

The last time the Farm Bill passed in 2008, House Speaker leader Nancy Pelosi publicly promised the American people that Congress would never pass such a bad farm bill again, after a spirited struggle to reign in corporate subsidies failed. Pass it now, we’ll do better next time, she said.

That promise was not kept today as the bill swept through the house with a bipartisan majority.

President Bush vetoed that 2008 Farm Bill because it “continues subsidies for the wealthy.” Congress overrode the veto.

President Obama needs to veto this bill to show that he is serious about the problems of hunger and income inequality.

The Farm Bill headed for Senate passage largely maintains the status quo, continuing all that it is wrong with the American food and political system. It favors corporate agribusiness, monocrops and genetic engineering over family and sustainable farmers. Funding was slashed for conservation measures that are needed to deal with loss of farmland and the fact that runoff from farmlands (pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste) is the largest source of water pollution. The push to level the playing field between livestock processors and farmers slid backwards.  The farm bill continues to promote a diet of overly processed food (or food substitutes) high in fat, sugar and salt that leads to health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.

In the face of soaring hunger, it cut back funding for hunger.

Yes, the system of direct payments for commodities was largely eliminated but environmental and taxpayer groups claim that the new insurance “reforms” are largely a bait-and-switch effort that will continue giveaways to agribusiness and wealthy investors. (though there were some limited reforms to aid both organic and diversified farm operations).

In the fights that took place behind closed doors in the waning hours of the secret negotiations,  the special interests won over family farmers and consumers. The limited reform to cap payments to wealthy investors / nonfarmers went out the window. In dairy, the processors prevailed over the farmers.

SNAP benefits were cut to an estimated 850,000 households – mainly public housing residents – by an average of $90/month (though the cuts will be steeper in states with high energy costs like NY). This was on top of the $5 billion SNAP cuts agreed to three years ago (when the Democrats were in the majority in both houses) but which took effect on Nov. 1. Demand at emergency food providers around the country has skyrocketed. Now the Farm Bill, if enacted, will considerably worsen the already bad situation for nearly a million households.

Hunger has risen in American since the Great Recession started , as unemployment soared. The number of guests at emergency food programs in NYS since 2007 has doubled. The Republican response to joblessness has been to cut food benefits (they will be more desperate for work if they are starving) and to cut unemployment benefits.

There are some modest reforms in the present bill. A number of good programs that were cut out a year ago when the farm bill was extended were restored – Beginning and Disadvantaged farmers, farmers markets, community food projects, support for local food systems, etc. But they amount to a few million dollars here and there in a bill that spends around $80 billion annually. Pocket change, not game changers.

The Farm Bill does relink conservation requirements to the receipt of crop insurance premium subsidies. The final bill also rejects a series of extreme proposals to eliminate market and contract protections for livestock and poultry farmers

The Food Research Action Center (FRAC) did note that there are modest boosts in nutrition supports (e.g. for The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), for “double bucks” farmers’ market programs, for improved SNAP education and training programs, for Healthy Food Financing). These are small positive steps but are far from commensurate to the SNAP damage in the bill.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition pointed out that the final deal rejected the bipartisan farm subsidy reform included in both the House and Senate-passed farm bills. Instead of a $50,000 annual limit on the primary payments (or double that for married couples), the lead negotiators decided instead on a $125,000 limit (again, doubled for married couples).  “Even that appalling give-away was not enough. They also decided not to adopt the House and Senate-passed provisions to close the loopholes that currently allow large, wealthy farms to collect many multiples of the nominal payment limit. Instead, they leave the loopholes entirely in place, allowing for unlimited payments, and punt any decisions about the ultimate fate of the loopholes to the Obama Administration. Granted the same authority by the 2008 Farm Bill, the Obama Administration decided to keep the current loopholes intact, providing little prospect that anything would prove different the second time around the same block.”

As FRAC pointed out, “the bill goes to the floor almost exactly a year after an expert Institute of Medicine committee found that SNAP benefits are already inadequate for most families to purchase an adequate, healthy diet; and it comes in the same month that researchers issued a new study showing that low-income people have increased hypoglycemia-related hospital admissions late in the month because they run out of food. The SNAP cuts will be a blow to health and nutrition, and to the government’s long-term fiscal well-being as well.”