October 11, 2012

The Farm Bill – What Now?

Sarita Wahba

Sarita Wahba

Research Assistant

Center for a Livable Future

With no farm bill, conservation programs are at risk

As of midnight, October 1, 2012, the farm bill officially expired. After spending a good portion of the summer learning about and reporting on the farm bill, the notion that a new farm bill might not be in the cards this year is slowly starting to sink in. Congress still has a chance to make things right if they pass a farm bill in the “lame duck” session—but opinions are mixed as to whether or not they will be willing or able to do so.

So the question then is: if there is no new farm bill, what will happen to existing farm bill programs? While all farm bill programs face an uncertain future, the fate of 37 programs hangs in a delicate balance, as they expired when then farm bill did. This means their funding “baseline” levels will be zero. Most likely, Congress will not be able to appropriate funding from the farm bill for these programs. Furthermore, if Congress is interested in keeping any of these programs afloat, members will need to identify budgetary offsets from other sources to pay for these 37 programs.

Among the 37 programs that have no baseline, many are important to public health because they contribute to more sustainable farming methods; they support local and regional food systems; and they ensure food security by supporting the next generation of farmers and ranchers. Such at-risk programs include:

  • Farmers Market Promotion Program – works to improve farmers’ ability to sell their products directly to consumers, through farmers markets, community supported agriculture, roadside stands, and other direct sales techniques.
  • Value Added Producer Grants – provides support to agriculture producers to improve their business practices to increase income, provide more jobs, contribute to the local economy, and increase food options for local communities.
  • Beginner Farmer and Rancher Development Program – provides grants for training the next generation of farmers and ranchers.
  • Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative – funds research, education, and initiatives to improve the production and marketing of organic agriculture.
  • National Organic Certification Cost Share Program – provides financial assistance to producers and handlers of organic agriculture in order to offset the cost of certification.
  • Organic Production and Market Data Initiatives – enables the USDA to collect data regarding organic agriculture production.

Congress has an important opportunity to stand up for farmers’ livelihoods and Americans’ health by making sure that these programs survive into the next farm bill.

So, how do we get to the next farm bill?

In order to comprehend the direction of where things may be going, it is important to understand the different tools that Congress could use, and how these may affect key farm bill programs. Potential actions that Congress could take include (1) a continuing resolution, (2) voiding sequestration, (3) extending the 2008 farm bill, or (4) creating a new farm bill. If any of these occur, there will be various implications for public health. The following is a quick synopsis:

CONTINUING RESOLUTION:

A six-month continuing resolution (CR) was passed by Congress. This legislation, which funds the government through the first half of the 2013 federal fiscal year in order to avoid a government shutdown, applies budget cuts that include $3 billion in cuts to agriculture. These cuts translate to significant decreases in conservation funding and other programs that are important to public health. More specifically, the USDA budget for conservation programs will be reduced by $500 million, and this includes a cut of $39 million for the Conservation Stewardship Program, a program that CLF strongly supports. This means that more than 13,000 farmers (with a corresponding 12 million acres of farmland) will be unable to take part in conservation efforts. Other programs that will see funding cuts include a $350 million decrease in Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and a reduction in nearly 48,000 acres of wetland that would have been protected by the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP).

SEQUESTRATION:

In addition to the CR, another potential influence on farm bill programs is sequestration. Last year, when the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction failed to reach an agreement on deficit reduction, sequestration was approved as a replacement. Sequestration is the process by which automatic budget cuts kick in (unless de-triggered) on January 1, 2013, if a budget agreement is not reached. A few weeks ago, the Obama administration released their overview regarding which programs will receive budget cuts if sequestration occurs.

According to National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition the resulting cuts to farm bill programs will amount to about $8 billion, and this will include $2.8 billion in cuts to conservation programs. This $8 billion is much lower than the earlier estimation of $15-16 billion in cuts to farm bill programs, and is due primarily to the exemption of almost all crop insurance subsidies from receiving budget cuts. One important fact to note is that the cuts to farm bill programs proposed in sequestration are significantly lower than the cuts that were written into the Senate and House versions of the farm bill that ultimately stalled.

One bright spot (if it can be described as such) to both a continuing resolution and sequestration is that mandatory spending programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will be left alone. This is positive in comparison to the cuts that were outlined in the Senate and House farm bills, but are disappointing to those who were looking for a budgetary increase for those programs.

Congress can take action to void the impending sequestration, but at this point there is no way to know the likelihood of that happening.

FARM BILL EXTENSION:

Another tool that Congress can utilize is an extension of the current farm bill. From a political perspective, the difficulty involved in passing an extension to the current farm bill is similar to that of passing a new farm bill, so the likelihood of this happening may be low. Additionally, as is the case with a continuing resolution and sequestration, a farm bill extension will not provide funding for those aforementioned 37 programs. Those important programs may be discontinued unless alternative funding sources are found for them.

A NEW FARM BILL:

All of the previous analyses bring us to two central questions. Is there any potential for a last ditch effort to get a farm bill passed after the election? And if a farm bill is passed, which budget will reign supreme? In theory, it is possible that after the elections in November a farm bill will be reconsidered, though at this point there is no way to know if this concept is anything more then pie in the sky. If a farm bill is passed, it is possible that the higher level of cuts proposed in the potential farm bill will trump the sequestration cuts and therefore could lead to additional budget cuts on important programs with real public health impacts.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has a helpful post explaining the various possibilities for the farm bill’s future and what its current status means for farmers. We agree with NSAC that Congress should pass a farm bill during the lame duck session, especially because some programs key to public health will be negatively impacted or eliminated without a 2012 Farm Bill. As is, the situation is extremely disappointing for many farmers, conservationists and those working to improve public health. As mentioned in an earlier post, reducing spending on key programs in the farm bill can threaten food security, increase disease proliferation, and lead to an array of other negative outcomes for human and environmental health. Hopefully, Congress will come to their senses and pass legislation that improves public health rather than harms it.

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