How Does the Farm Bill Affect Everyday Americans?

, senior writer | March 1, 2018, 9:00 am EST
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This post is a part of a series on Ask a Scientist

Ask a Scientist – March 2018

Congress renews legislation known as the Farm Bill every five years or so to address a range of issues, from farm subsidies to food stamps. This month, we asked Ricardo Salvador, director of our Food and Environment (F&E) Program, to explain how the Farm Bill, which Congress is now drafting, affects everyday Americans and why we should pay attention to this relatively obscure debate currently playing out on Capitol Hill.

Salvador, who has a doctorate in agronomy, has been running the UCS Food and Environment program for the last six years. Prior to joining UCS, he was a program officer for food, health and wellbeing at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and before that he was a researcher and educator at Iowa State and Texas A&M universities.

Today only 2.1 million out of a population of 327 million people are farmers. It isn’t a stretch to say that almost no one farms anymore. So why should anyone care about the Farm Bill?

That’s exactly the reason! We rely on relatively few people to produce what most of us eat, and we also rely on a small number of people to make decisions about how half of our nation’s land area is managed. Those decisions directly affect our health and wellbeing by determining the quality of our food system and the purity of our air and water.

One interpretation of the statistic you cited is that modern agriculture is such a resounding success that the rest of us needn’t worry about our food: where it comes from, how it is produced, and by whom. But if Americans knew what their tax dollars supported in agriculture, there’s a lot that they wouldn’t condone. That’s what the Farm Bill is about: the kind of food and agricultural system we underwrite with public money.

In any case, it’s important to keep in mind that those 2.1 million farmers aren’t all the same. Only 4 percent of them account for 55 percent of US agricultural output and on average they each gross $1 million or more annually.

Current federal programs reward production, so those farmers are proportionately the greatest beneficiaries of public largesse. But they represent large, immensely profitable enterprises that don’t need public assistance. By contrast, the other 96 percent—the small and midsize farms that account for 45 percent of the nation’s farm assets— operate with a less than 10 percent profit margin. They’re the farmers who are the backbone of our rural economy and need public support.

These farmers are aging and many don’t have children who want (or can afford) to continue to work the land. But, young people, including many people of color, who would like to become the next generation of farmers and reinvigorate rural communities are finding the high capital costs required for entry prohibitive.

What about farming’s technical and scientific side? US tax dollars are the primary reason the United States has the most scientific, high-tech, productive agricultural system in the world, right?

There’s no denying US farmers’ high productivity. It’s a result of the nation’s large base of rich, arable land and taxpayer-subsidized research. Because of the Farm Bill’s distorted incentives, however, only about 2 percent of US farmland is used to grow fruits and vegetables, while 59 percent is devoted to such commodity crops as corn and soybeans, which end up primarily as meat, processed food and biofuels. And while these incentives have created a very productive system, it is one that erodes soil, pollutes water and air, and makes farmers dependent on pesticides, fertilizers, and other expensive “inputs.”

Public funds should be about growing healthy and affordable food we need while maintaining the long-term productivity of our land and fostering sustainable rural communities. Cutting-edge research at our leading agricultural universities is demonstrating that there are better, more profitable ways to achieve high productivity, and that also protect crops from weather extremes. They look like mosaics on the land, arranged according to soil, water, and weather conditions. Because they are more biodiverse, they are more resilient. This is the agroecological approach, a sophisticated, scientifically informed strategy. But the United States currently doesn’t research and impart those methods to farmers nearly as much as it invests in input-dependent agriculture. Input-dependent agriculture enriches the large agribusiness sector, but the agroecological system is better for farmers and a smarter investment of taxpayer dollars.

Consider this irony: High productivity actually poses a problem for farmers. The more they produce, the greater the supply, which means that the prices of what they sell drop.

But can’t farmers make up for low prices by producing more?

That’s what farmers generally try to do, and it creates a vicious cycle of runaway production and ever lower prices. US agriculture is in the midst of such an “oversupply-low price” crisis at the moment, with no immediate relief in sight. It’s good for agribusinesses that sell fertilizer and pesticides to farmers or buy products from farmers, but very bad for farmers and their land.

The Farm Bill incentivizes this cycle, even if unwittingly. To ensure that farmers don’t attempt to game the system by signing up routinely just to “farm the government,” knowing that they can’t fail if things go wrong, USDA officials and the lenders who review applications want to see that farmers are making a serious good-faith effort to produce. Farmers can document their efforts by demonstrating a history of consistently increasing yields year after year and a track record of investing in such yield-boosting inputs as fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery. And voila, we wind up with an incoherent, environmentally unsustainable system where hundreds of thousands of farmers can’t survive without public assistance because we produce too much, incentivizing a glut of commodities that don’t align with the USDA’s own guidelines for a healthy diet. It’s bad for small and midsize farmers, the general public, and the environment, but great for big agribusinesses, the ultimate beneficiary of our public assistance to “farmers.”

What can the general public do about this? How can we reform the agricultural system?

Farmers need markets, fair prices and technical support. They should have the information they need to adopt the diverse agroecological methods that are more profitable, better at protecting the environment, and produce a healthier food supply. The government should support new and beginning farmers with microloans and grants to acquire land and build the infrastructure they need. It should help develop more domestic and regional markets for healthier food, and it should provide entrepreneurial opportunities for new and urban farmers to deliver healthy food to poor communities.

I haven’t even mentioned the inequity perpetuated by the Farm Bill. Farming is currently the whitest US profession after veterinarians.  This is not arbitrary. It was directly aided by the federal government distributing stolen land from Native Americans to white settlers for free, as well as by Southern institutions systematically appropriating the land of African-American farmers, other farmers of color, and women. Additionally, the USDA was found guilty of the historical practice of withholding technical support from nonwhite farmers in the landmark Pigford lawsuit of 1999. To underscore the racism of our food and ag system, I’ll add that food and agriculture are our most segregated labor sector: While farming is the whitest profession, the food chain (from the fields to slaughterhouses to dishwashers) is the brownest field of work and includes six of the 10 lowest paid jobs in the country. For these reasons, US farm policies must be more equitable.

To do something tangible about these things, UCS members should know that a small number of legislators in Congress decide how to spend nearly $100 billion annually via the farm bill. They should ask members of the House Agriculture and Agriculture Appropriations committees and Senate Agriculture and Agriculture Appropriations committees  to invest more in agroecology research and provide more support for diversified, midsize family farms. In addition, they should tell legislators that the farm bill should tie eligibility for crop insurance benefits to producing healthier foods and implementing biodiverse, soil-building and conservation practices. Finally, until the United States achieves greater social equity and eliminates poverty and hunger, UCS members—and everyone else, for that matter—should demand that Congress preserve and protect the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from any cuts.

As the senior scientist and director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Ricardo Salvador, Ph.D., works with citizens, scientists, economists, and politicians to transition our current food system into one that grows healthy foods while employing sustainable and socially equitable practices. Dr. Salvador earned a B.S. in agricultural science from New Mexico State University. He holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in crop production and physiology from Iowa State University.

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