What Farm Bill Inaction Means for Farmers and Food Sovereignty

The Farm Bill presented Congress with an opportunity to change some of the fundamental structures of our food system, by creating a farmer-owned reserve and establishing a price floor that reflects farmers’ true cost of production. It may not surprise many of us to know that Congress did not live up to this responsibility. 

When Grassroots last wrote about the 2012 Farm Bill in June, over 10,000 of you took action with us. Taking our lead from the demands of the National Family Farm Coalition and other groups advocating for fairness and justice in the Farm Bill, we pushed for inclusion of funding for programs such as the Minority Outreach and Education program, the Farmers Market Nutrition Program, and the Emergency Disaster Grants for Farmworkers program. We supported the creation of a farmer-owned reserve and establishing a price floor that reflects farmers’ true cost of production.   Most importantly, we asserted the critical need to make sure that “... rather than allowing such important decisions about our food system to be made in closed-door meetings with big agribusiness interests, Congress [must] engage in an inclusive, participatory process that listens to and lifts up the voices of those of us who are most impacted by these decisions – the consumers and the small-scale producers who we all depend on.”
 
What went wrong? 
 
First, the Senate held behind-the-scenes meetings in late June to pass its version, including some but not all of the important commodity programs, without even attempting to address pricing and reserves. Then, in mid-July, the House Agriculture Committee approved their version of the Farm Bill, one that NFFC described as “disastrous.” It not only neglects funding for many of the important commodity programs, but it also cuts more than $16 billion from food stamps (SNAP) even as the need for food stamps increases. The House version also eliminates critical regulatory powers, including the 2008 Farm Bill provision enabling the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to regulate corporate consolidation in the livestock industry (GIPSA Rule). Perhaps most striking, the House version includes riders advanced by Monsanto and other agribusiness giants that would, among other things, severely limit USDA's ability to assess, monitor and control genetically modified crops, even those not yet approved. These surface at a time when Monsanto and Dow are seeking approval of new crops which contain the chemical found in Agent Orange, 2,4-D.
 
Neither of these versions has passed. The current Farm Bill will expire this October 1, and without a new one in its place, many of the important programs that rural and urban communities depend upon – such as the Minority Outreach and Education program – will simply cease to exist. 
 
The timing could not be worse – with federal departments preparing to make budget cuts across the board, it will be particularly challenging to reinstate programs once they have been eliminated. Kathy Ozer, Executive Director of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), explains, "The White House recently issued a sequestration report that outlines budget cuts taking effect January 1, 2013, masking how deep the real cuts are because some of the most important programs will have already expired before cuts are made."
 
Needless to say, it is not a promising picture for the Farm Bill in 2012. However, even with the threats created if Congress fails to act, this period also brings great opportunity. The connections built between organizations working on the Farm Bill are unsurpassed in their breadth and strength – this year’s efforts brought together not just family farmers and national policy groups, but also urban food justice and youth activists in communities across the country. These relationships will carry forward, both to keep fighting for a Farm Bill that is just for communities in the U.S. and around the world, and to take on other fights. Ozer shares, “ We have time between October 1 and Congress' lame duck, post-election session to build the political support for the more than 30 programs that have expired and will need to be reinstated. These are programs such as the Minority Outreach and Education program,  conservation programs, and other cost-share programs that expand participation.”
 
This moment is also ripe for public education and direct action toward truly transformational changes in our food and agriculture systems. While Congress clearly does not recognize the principles and meaning behind food sovereignty, the movement for food sovereignty is growing stronger every day. On a local level, more and more rural towns are adopting resolutions that support the rights of community members to produce and sell their own food, based on a model promoted by our allies at Food for Maine’s Future. Organizing groups in cities – from Detroit to San Antonio to the Bay Area in California and more – are expanding their efforts for community gardens into a struggle for community access to and control over the land necessary to make urban farming a reality. Farmworkers in Florida are working towards exciting new models of collective farming, so that they can stop being exploited laborers and start creating their own models of production that are healthy for themselves and their communities. And throughout Pennsylvania, cities and towns are passing local Rights of Nature ordinances as part of the global struggle to stop natural gas fracking and defend the Rights of Mother Earth. 
 
Most of these efforts – and many more – are connected to a larger vision and strategy through the US Food Sovereignty Alliance (USFSA), and all of these examples were inspired or influenced by the struggles of peasants and indigenous peoples across the Global South. Grassroots International is proud to be part of the USFSA, and looks forward to continued efforts to build consciousness and action for food sovereignty in the US, in partnership with the struggles of our partners around the world.