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Agriculture Policy Experts Hope 2012 Farm Bill Maintains Sustainable Course Amid Budget Cuts

September 26, 2011 |

Congressional subcommittees are now working on the legislation which will set agricultural policy for the next half decade – and they are doing so under unprecedented public scrutiny of federal spending. Sustainable agriculture advocates and policy experts hope that lawmakers will seize the opportunity to push the long-term local farming and food security agendas, but in the current fiscal climate they remain realistic.

The Farm Bill is an omnibus package of legislation, passed approximately every five years, which regulates the United States’ agricultural policy. It typically affects farm and ranch subsidies, rural development, and research, and also funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food stamps to eligible individuals. And this year, perhaps more than ever, there is an elevated public consciousness about the importance of the farm bill in setting conservation and sustainable agriculture policy.

“We’ve found from our members that there’s an unprecedented level of interest around food and farm issues,” said Kathy Mulvey, director of policy at the Community Food Security Coalition. “And people are really recognizing that the farm bill is a major piece of legislation that affects agricultural development and development in rural communities.”

However, lawmakers will construct the bill under the shadow of increasing concern about the national debt. Agricultural spending is one of many areas that lawmakers are now eying for budget cuts, newly wary of the attention voters are paying to fiscal policy following the debt ceiling crisis this summer.

“We need to come up with a way to save dollars overall, and also to transfer dollars from lower value things like direct funding to things like rural development and environmental conservation and protection,” said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “Those have always been the shortchanged issues in the farm bill.”

In a recent column in The Hill, former secretary of Agriculture and Kansas representative Dan Glickman emphasized the need for continued research into sustainable practices and resource conservation in the face of growing shortages and climate stress.

“Sound research is essential to helping us feed a growing world and increasing yields of staple crops without placing stress on the environment,” Glickman wrote.

“The writing’s on the wall, that agricultural research is unlikely to see appropriations this cycle,” Hoefner said. “Relative to almost any other scientific field that the government funds–like energy, drugs, and the National Institutes of Health–the amount of money they put into agriculture is low.”

Key during this legislative session, he believes, will be to hold onto farm bill funding for conservation and sustainability research established in 2008–which includes moderate funding for organic, biomass and specialty crop research totaling over $400 million since the bill was passed.

“There has been funding in the current farm bill cycle, mandatory money for research, especially on specialty crops and organic funding,” Hoefner said. “We want to see all those programs continued. But that’s part of the big discussion going on right now. At least the funding that currently exists should be continued.”

Although farm and ranch subsidy programs are likely to be renewed, there is growing dissatisfaction among experts with their structural effects on sustainable and community agriculture.

“Our position has always been that there is no place for direct payment farm subsidies,” Hoefner said. “But we’re heartened by the fact that we used to be alone in that position, and now we have significant support.”

Mulvey agrees.

“Generally speaking, subsidies are not favorable to community and sustainable food systems,” she said.

Rather, she argues, a best-case scenario farm bill would build bridges between farms and their communities–for example, by connecting food stamp recipients to local food networks as a health initiative. Most crucially, she believes, Congress needs to take a broad and long-term approach to food security and the environment.

“There’s a lot that could be done to put together evidence that will show what direction our food system ought to be developing in,” she said.

In farm bill policy and more generally, the Community Food Security Coalition supports comprehensive reinvestment and rebuilding of the infrastructure of local and regional food systems, according to Mulvey. If nothing else, this legislative session is a chance to maintain and build on existing sustainability measures in the 2008 Farm Bill.

“If we can bring that work to the next level, that will have a real effect on food and nutrition, on the global economy and on putting local farmers and ranchers on the road to success.” Mulvey said. “There’s increased demand for local food, and new avenues are under development–but people are running into real barriers with the consolidated food system that we have.”

The 2012 farm bill will be the eleventh multiyear farm legislation package since 1965.

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