No sooner than the ink dried from President Obama's signature on the New Year's weekend bill to avert the fiscal cliff than some media outlets declared that rural America and agriculture groups had lost their political clout. The failure of the last Congress to pass a five-year farm bill was cited as proof.
A truer and more alarming way to view the one-year extension of a scaled-down version of the 2008 farm bill included in the deal is that Congress catered to the interests of rich and powerful corporate operations. They'll receive subsidies they don't need and increased exemption from estate taxes, which tightens their grip on land ownership. Congress also degraded the conservation, environmental, energy and organics programs assailed by Big Ag.
The measure is a giant step in the wrong direction. While Americans are relieved that milk prices won't skyrocket, they should be fuming that Congress has agreed to continue shelling out about $5 billion in annual subsidies to producers whether or not they grow crops or even need the money. The subsidies largely benefit the most prosperous operations at a time when many are experiencing spikes in farm incomes and land values. At the same time, livestock producers smarting from the high cost of feed will continue to be squeezed.
The farm bill passed by the U.S. Senate last June eliminated the wasteful subsidies, as did the bill adopted by the U.S. House Agriculture Committee. But House Speaker John Boehner refused to bring the committee's bill up for a vote and let the 2008 farm bill expire. The Senate's bill would have saved $23 billion over 10 years; the House committee's version slashed $35 billion over the same period, though a bulk of its savings came on the backs of the poor who benefit from food aid.
Given Boehner's unwillingness to vote on those cuts, the squawking by GOP fiscal hawks that the fiscal-cliff deal struck didn't slash spending enough rings hollow. The bare-bones 2008 farm bill extension also punctuates agricultural policies that have served wealthy operations and increased farmers' productivity while eroding the soil, air and water, and undercutting food safety.
Unhealthy agriculture policies lead to rising health care costs and jeopardize the future of our nation's food supply. The programs being diminished are critical to ensuring food security, aggressive action against food-borne illness, and tools to mitigate and better adapt to severe climate changes. Getting the support needed for sustainable agriculture programs will be harder now, but the new Congress must fight for this as the next farm bill is crafted.