Thoughts on the Farm Bill: How should it influence food production, and to what end?

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You might know that Congress is failing to come to agreement on a new Farm Bill. This is important because the Farm Bill governs agriculture and food policy at the federal level for about five years at a time. The last Farm Bill was passed in 2008, but it has not yet been renewed because there is lack of agreement on what our national food policy should be.

Although there are many factors that influence the workings of our national food supply and distribution, this piece of legislation is the closest thing we have to a national food policy. Not surprisingly, it always stirs controversy.

There are certain things about food on which most everyone could agree: It’s important that we have a vibrant and sustainable food-production system. It’s important that our food is safe and nutritious.

I believe it’s unconscionable that in a land of many resources, there are people who go hungry and children who are undernourished; we need a system that assures this does not happen.

The problem is that it is difficult for people to agree on what we need to do to achieve these goals.  

The name “Farm Bill” might be confusing because this legislation is not only about farms. It is an omnibus bill that includes 15 different titles that include agricultural research, trade, commodity price and income supports, rural development, bioenergy, land conservation and forestry, among others.

The biggest single funding area in the bill is federal nutrition programs, which in the 2008 Farm Bill represented fully two-thirds of expenditures. So the bill really is more about food than about farms.

The overall five-year expenditures in the 2008 bill totaled $189 billion, and 97 percent of the spending went to four titles. These were: nutrition, 67 percent; farm commodity support, 15 percent; conservation, 9 percent; and crop insurance, 8 percent. The nutrition title includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Emergency Food Assistance Program and the National School Lunch Program.

So you can see that this large piece of legislation can have a lot to do with what foods are produced, but also what food is available to those people more at risk of food insecurity, especially children.

The bill influences decisions about what crops are produced, how much they are worth, and how farmers are compensated, as well as how land can be managed for food production versus conservation uses. There typically are big disputes about how to best influence agricultural production, and toward what ends.

The original Farm Bill in 1933 was an effort to stabilize farm prices so that more farmers stayed in business and produced food at a time when the Great Depression threatened to drive producers out of business and possibly result in large-scale failure of food supply. Another goal was to promote support of rural economies. 

In subsequent Farm Bills, there have been policy changes to influence production and food supply. Some of these have promoted production of massive amounts of food to keep food prices low. Some have enhanced export of food to other parts of the world. A common theme for many of the policies that directly impact farm production has been to decrease risks involved in food production and farm viability.

What should happen in the formulation of the next Farm Bill? Should we cut funding for programs that help assure adequate nutrition for needy families? Should there be a national policy on what type of farming or what size of production or to what level of risk farm production should be exposed?

I am surprised by the number of people I meet who seem more focused on cutting support for nutritional aid programs than they are on making sure the policy achieves its goal. There may be differing opinions on what other features of the Farm Bill should be used to influence our farming practices, but assuring that people have food available should be a top priority.

Dr. Frank Garry is a Colorado State University livestock veterinarian and professor who works with the university’s Veterinary Extension team. He may be reached at fgarry@colostate.edu.


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About the Author


Dr. Frank Garry
Dr. Frank Garry is a professor in the Colorado State University Department of Clinical Sciences with a focus primarily on dairy cattle. Garry provides large-animal clinical services, teaches veterinary students, and conducts research at CSU's James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital.



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