The existing structure of the last farm bill “largely ignores the deep systemic challenges plaguing our farmers and food system,” argues IATP in a position paper titled Beyond the Farm Bill. Those challenges include “wild fluctuations in agriculture prices that hurt farmers and consumers, skyrocketing land prices that keep beginning farmers off the land, the exploitation of farm and food workers, the growing market power of big corporations that overwhelm local food systems built to connect with their communities, and rising income inequality that keep healthy food out of the reach of many, despite its availability.”
Ben Lilliston, vice president of programs at Minneapolis-based IATP, outlined the organization's case for change.
“The fundamental problem with the current farm bill is that it doesn't give enough attention to how the [food] market works,” he said. “For example, there is such volatility in prices and farmers have so little power that they are very vulnerable to factors beyond their control. So from our perspective, an effective farm bill needs to take into account all kinds of farmers and the market conditions they face, not just large commercial operators and the special interests that dominate the market.”
Under existing policy, as reflected in the last farm bill, large-scale production of commodity crops such as corn, wheat, soybeans, rice and cotton are overly rewarded, at the expense of specialty crops and smaller growers, Lilliston said.
“There are all kinds of incentives such as subsidies and crop insurance programs that reward farmers for growing those crops,” he said. “But the existing policy also incentivizes and rewards the size and scale of operations. And the reason it does the things it does is that large food companies want those kinds of incentives and rewards, because they help them turn these commodity crops into all kinds of products. That's a very different way of looking at farming than looking at smaller farms that are generally more diverse in terms of what they grow and who are focused primarily on supplying food to their local and regional markets.”
The number of farmers markets in the U.S. jumped 17 percent in 2011, IATP says, and all 50 states now have farm-to-school nutrition programs. “Despite such opportunities,” Lilliston said, “significant infrastructure, marketing, and information barriers are limiting growth in local and regional agriculture.”
Washington lawmakers are well behind the curve when it comes to growing awareness among farmers and consumers that current agriculture policy is outdated and counterproductive, Lilliston said. “Outside the beltway, I think we have reached a tipping point,” he said. “But inside the beltway, I think Washington will try to finish and pass a new farm bill, based on existing policy, this year.”
However, he added, IATP is increasingly confident that based on market realities and shifting public opinion, over the next several years significant change can be accomplished.
A step in the right direction, Lilliston said, is the “Local Food, Farms and Jobs Act” introduced in the House by Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree, D, in late April and sponsored in the Senate by Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, D. The bill has support from 53 members of the House and 18 senators - all of them Democrats. No member of Florida's congressional delegation is currently listed as a co-sponsor.
“The bill represents a serious attempt to shift the priorities of the farm bill to a more sensible approach that can be integrated into a new farm bill,” Lilliston said. “It's a first step in what will be a long political process. And realistically, it's likely that process won't get started until one more farm bill based on current policies is put into place.”
Florida Farm Bureau supports current agricultural policy and the existing farm bill concept, said Janell Hendren, FFB's national affairs coordinator.
“We support the current concept of the farm bill as it relates to providing stability for our food supply and a safety net so that the country can feel secure about providing its own food and fiber,” Hendren said. “And that safety net, based on things like price fluctuations and natural disasters, is critical to an effective agricultural policy. So it's essential that we continue that.”
Although FFB disagrees with IATP's assessment that large agribusinesses dominate current government policy, Hendren said FFB agrees in principle that “there is a lot of opportunity for improvement of current agricultural policy. For example, we support expanding crop insurance programs. We also support the overall concept of a farmer making production decisions based on market factors rather than government programs.”
The good thing about the farm bill, Hendren said, is that it must be renewed every five years. “So that means we can have these discussions about what might be outmoded about our policies,” she said. “Obviously, what worked 20 years ago is not good policy today in some cases. But the important issue is the stability of our food supply. And that means we have to focus on a policy that makes sure agriculture continues to thrive in America. And to do that, we have to constantly review our policies.”
Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, a leader in the Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, has no official position on IATP's initiative, said spokesperson Lisa Lochridge.
For more information on IATP's proposed policy changes, visit www.iatp.org/documents/beyond-the-farm-bill.