Food, Fuel and Green Revolutions: The US 2007 Farm Bill slogs forward

Food First | 10.01.2007

The 2007 Farm and Food Bill is mired in the no-man’s land between the recently passed House version (“Farm, Nutrition, and Bioenergy Act of 2007) and the yet to be agreed upon Senate version, which lawmakers say may take well into October. Then the two versions must be reconciled in House—Senate conference before going to the president to be signed into law—perhaps as late as next year. Every step of the way, Republicans and Democrats, urban and rural lawmakers will fight over what is to be done and who will pay for it.

That’s actually good news. Weighing in at $286 billion, the five-year proposal the House of Representatives agreed to in July is largely a depressing exercise in “more of the same.” Afraid of losing farm state support in the approaching elections, Democrats were careful to keep the farm subsidy system intact. Even Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s timid $1 million dollar cap on individual income for farm subsidy payments was five times higher than President Bush’s proposal. Corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, & cotton—the scourges of poor diet, farm loss, environmental damage, and misuse of tax dollars—will receive the lion’s share of subsidies (about $7.5 billion a year). The new bill does nothing to dismantle the concentration of subsidies in the hands of large agribusiness. As pointed out by analyst, Kari Hamershlag of the California Coalition for Food and Farming, “Three cotton farmers in California will receive, in one year, the entire national budget dedicated to organic research and extension. Five corn growers in the Midwest will receive the equivalent of the annual budget dedicated to supporting farmers’ markets.”

There are, however, a number of hopeful aspects in the House bill that will need to be defended (and funded) when it goes to the House-Senate negotiations. For example, thanks to the Congressional Black Caucus, the bill includes an increase in funding for nutrition programs, $100 million to settle the discrimination lawsuits against

Black farmers and priority funding of agricultural programs at “Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Native American Universities.”2 It provides $20 million discretionary funding for a new Rural Entrepreneurs and Micro-Enterprise Loan Program that offers grants, loans, education and assistance to rural entrepreneurs; authorizes a Healthy Food Urban Enterprise Development Program; and provides grants for feasibility studies for the establishment of processing and distribution facilities. It includes $90 million for different aspects of organic production, including research, extension, conversion, and marketing. And, there is $35 million for farmers markets. Unfortunately the bill eliminated $5 million in mandatory funding for Community Food Projects while adding $30 million in discretionary funding. Finally, Democrats pushed for up to $70 million for schools to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables and authorized a $10 million nutrition program to address obesity. In a symbolic gesture to address hunger and poor nutrition in isolated neighborhoods, the bill recommends that various federal agencies work together to assess “food deserts” and develop recommendations to eliminate them. Importantly, there is $75 million in technical assistance for “Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers.”

Unfortunately, the Farm Bill’s Energy Title also provides up to $350 million in loan guarantees for “Biorefineries and Biofuels Production Plants,” along with a host of other programs to promote agrofuels, mainly ethanol. When these incentives are combined with existing ethanol subsidies (between $ 5.1 billion and $6.8 billion in 20063), and with the potential five-fold increase in energy targets proposed in the Senate energy bill (see below), a full-scale stampede on corn ethanol will likely result.

With only 19 Republicans supporting the House Bill, it has weak political buy-in and can be easily vetoed by the President. Though the Democrats have a majority in the Senate, there is no guarantee that the good things in the Bill will be left in, or that more potentially destructive components (like most of the Energy Title) will be taken out. The slow legislative process provides an opportunity for continued pressure on Congress for a fair Farm and Food Bill.

Also in this issue of News & Views:

  • The U.S. Senate proposes a five-fold increase in agrofuel targets by 2022ownership

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