Law of the West
June 2, 2008
Well, it would seem to be that time again, when farming makes the news. Every few years Congress decides to turn its attention to the American Heartland and develop a statement of agricultural and food policy that not only has impacts within our Nation but across the Globe. This is one of those years. Last week, the Senate and the House approved the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 with veto-proof majorities; which if you are in favor of the Bill is a good thing since it is certain to be vetoed by President Bush.
The current Farm Bill expired in September of 2007 and Congress has been working diligently on a new version. It is likely the last piece of legislation that will become law this year, as attentions will soon shift to the elections. As a piece of strategic national policy, the Farm Bill has few equals. It is often highly controversial and loaded with earmarks. The 2008 version is no exception. As with bills before it, the 2008 version also has authorization for various subsidy programs which makes it the focus of intense debate around the World. By subsidizing our agricultural operations, it is argued that we suppress the market place making it more difficult for emerging nations to develop economically sustainable agriculture and food production capabilities. It also, in the view of other Nations, attempts to make their agricultural products less marketable in the United States by requiring mandatory Country of Origin Labeling for fruit, vegetables and meat.
Yet, calling this piece of agricultural policy the Farm Bill is misleading. It is much more than that. The Bill is heavily laden with programs that in many ways provide the social conscience of the Nation. The vast majority of the $290 billion package goes to non-farm programs: food assistance and nutrition programs for the needy, conservation programs, food safety and support for rural communities. The Bill invests $10 billion in nutrition programs, providing needed funding for food banks and improving and expanding access to the food stamp program by reforming benefit rules to cover rising food costs.
The Bill earmarks about $3 billion for specialty crops, including the turnips, parsnips, leek and rutabaga. There’s $600 million for disaster relief, $500 million for fruit and vegetable grants, $300 million for research, $60 million for export assistance and more. The Bill reduces the income cap for farm program payments by 80 percent and prevents those “farmers” with non-farm income above $500,000 from receiving any farm program payments. It devotes more than $1.3 billion in funding for organic agriculture, fruit and vegetable programs, and local food networks.
The Bill also tries to be “green” ” probably a good thing for an agricultural policy statement; it extends the current programs and provides $7.9 billion of new funding for popular conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, Farm Protection Program, Wetlands Reserve Program, and the Conservation Reserve Program. It attempts to find answers to the energy crisis by investing an additional $1 billion in renewable energy research, development and production. The bill encourages the transition from corn-based ethanol to cellulosic ethanol by reducing the tax credit for corn ethanol and increasing the credit for cellulosic ethanol production.
A great place to learn more about the Bill is the web page for the House Committee on Agriculture. The conference report and related materials are available on the Committee’s website at: http://agriculture.house.gov/inside/FarmBill.html.