June 22, 2012
If the farm bill could sing, that might be its riff, and our Senators its friends. In an uncharacteristic act of relative efficiency, the Senate debated 73 amendments and on Thursday, June 21, passed the bill in the span of three short days. And, believe it or not, the final bill is a little better for public health than it was three days ago. There’s still a long way to go, but for now there are a few things to sing about.
Wins for Public Health
These improvements did not float in lightly on the breeze. They were hard—and in some cases, narrowly—won. The closest call was an amendment (#2438), proposed by Senator Saxby Chambliss (R–GA), which requires farmers to undertake basic conservation measures in order to receive government help in paying for crop insurance. This is a commonsense social contract with significant implications for human health, as we have outlined here and here, and yet narrowly passed by a 5-vote margin (52/47). The Senate also showed their commitment to programs that have been essential for protecting human and environmental health by rejecting Senator Mike Lee’s (R–UT) amendment (#2314) to eliminate the Conservation Stewardship and Conservation Reserve programs. CLF has described the numerous benefits conservation programs provide for public health here and here.
Crop insurance is a big deal for this farm bill, and other than the SNAP program, is likely to be the largest expenditure for our federal farm programs over the next 5 years (the average life of the farm bill). An amendment proposed by Senators Dick Durbin (D–IL) and Tom Coburn (R–OK) (#2439), ensuring that farmers earning over $750,000 cannot get government help to purchase crop insurance passed 66 to 33. Why, you ask, does someone working in public health care about who can get help purchasing crop insurance? Mainly because the dominant industrial agricultural system in our country has numerous negative impacts on health and for too long has been propped up by government programs to the detriment of more sustainable systems. This is a small step toward leveling the playing field for farmers outside of the industrial system.
Another small bite at leveling the playing field came with the acceptance of Senator Jeff Merkley’s (D–OR) amendment (#2382) on organic crop insurance. As things stand in the current bill, organic producers have to pay a 5 percent premium to get insurance, and if there is a disaster, they are only reimbursed for the value of a conventional crop. As we all know, organic foods cost more, so these farmers have not been being compensated fairly. This amendment will help by requiring insurance be made available that would reimburse farmers based on the actual value of the organic products.
The Senate took a stand in support of local and regional food by rejecting Senator Chambliss’ amendment (#2432) that would have eliminated the Farmers Market Promotion Program and by passing Senator Ron Wyden’s (D–OR) amendment (#2388) to create pilot programs for schools in 5 regions across the country to purchase whole and minimally processed products from local and regional farmers, instead requiring the purchases be from the federal meal program. Children’s nutrition was also attended to by the acceptance of Senator Maria Cantwell’s (D–WA) amendment (#2370) that encourages the purchase of pulse crops (beans, lentils, etc.) in the school meal program.
Losses for Public Health
While the above votes bode well for public health and improved the bill, there were a few instances where the Senate did not act in the best interest of public health.
The health threats from industrial livestock production are significant, which raises concern around the passage of amendment #2287 by Senator Tom Carper (D–DE), which instructs the USDA to support research, “to improve the digestibility, nutritional value, and efficiency of use of corn, soybean meal, cereal grains, and grain byproducts for the poultry and food animal production industries.” This is another example of federal dollars being directed toward research supporting industrial food animal production, as opposed to investing in research to improve grass-based systems and livestock production methods that protect human and environmental health.
(The Senate narrowly avoided tying the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in their ability to protect public health from spills associated with industrial food animal production facilities. Two amendments on this issue required a 60-vote threshold, which neither reached. One (#2456) by Senator Barbara Boxer (D–CA) would have allowed EPA to continue these cost-effective aerial inspections (47/48) and another (#2372) by Senator Mike Johanns’s (R–NE) would have eliminated EPA’s ability to do so (56/43).
Ensuring basic nutrition needs are met is fundamental to promoting public health. Unfortunately, the Senate also rejected Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D–NY) amendment (#2156) that would have fully restored funding to the SNAP program and would have given money to the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack program by limiting federal payments to crop insurance companies and agencies, such that they payments not exceed $825 million per year. The savings from this cap would have been used to pay for these key nutrition programs.
Clearly, there are numerous financial interests at play in a farm bill debate, and often these win out over public health. Such was the case with an amendment proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders (D–VT) that would have given states the option to label genetically engineered food (#2310, defeated 73/26). Many consumer groups have been fighting for customers’ right-to-know about what is in their food. The research on the health impacts of GE technology in food is still not clear. Public health invokes the precautionary principle that advises not to undertake something until it is proven safe. Because this has not happened yet for GE technology in food, people should at least have the option to choose whether or not they to consume such products.
The fight continues…
So now what?
Now, the attention fully shifts to the House Agriculture Committee. They will begin marking up their version of the bill after the July 4 recess. It is expected that the House Committee will attempt to make larger cuts to the SNAP program and that they will not be as supportive of conservation measures. To protect the small gains for public health achieved in the Senate Bill, it will be essential that everyone—really, everyone, even you…yes, you!—contacts her or his House member to express what she or he wants to see in the bill.
We’ll continue to add updates on our blog, and if you want to get engaged at the grassroots level, here are a few examples of groups that will be organizing such efforts:
Overall, the farm bill continues to promote an agriculture system that is not aligned with protecting human and environmental health, but the Senate version has taken a few small steps toward one that does. We need to celebrate and communicate these wins, so that Congress knows we’re serious about them. It’s important to let your Senators know what you appreciate in the bill and what you were disappointed about, as their job isn’t over yet. If the House passes its version of the bill, the differences between the two must be worked out in a conference committee comprised of members from the House and Senate.
We’ll see what sort of song the farm bill is singing at that point. Its tune, my friends, will depend on you.