Tuesday, the United States Senate voted 68 to 32 in favor of a new five-year farm bill, following 3 years of highly contested arguments and political maneuvers attempting to sway the bill in favor of a particular political party. The bill will now be sent to President Obama, who is expected to sign the bill into law.
The 949 page bill outlines provisions for food and farming for the next 5 years in the United States, with all of the subsidies and payments totaling $956 billion. While the costs for the farm bill seem outrageously expensive, it is estimated that the new bill will save $16.6 billion over the next 10 years.
Debbie Stabenow (D - Mich.) has pointed out that the Department of Agriculture is ahead of the curve in Washington when it comes to saving money, stating that “We are the only part of the federal government to produce savings in our own areas of jurisdiction, and we eliminated about a hundred different programs or authorizations that . . . no longer made sense... And so I would challenge my colleagues — if they did what we did, we’d have a balanced budget.” Despite the potential savings, however, many people still hold complaints about the substance of the bill.
For conservatives, the biggest complaint seems to be that not enough money was slashed from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; a.k.a. food stamps). The farm bill that passed on Tuesday cuts $8.4 billion from SNAP over the next 10 years, mainly by eliminating loopholes which allowed unqualified people to receive assistance and by creating firmer regulations for who qualifies for the program. This reduction is significantly less than the $40 billion most conservatives wanted cut from the program. SNAP benefits are given to more than 47 million Americans, and 1 in every 4 children receive benefits from the program.
While conservatives wanted even more money cut from SNAP, many liberals are upset that any money at all was cut from the program: "Only in Washington could a final bill that doubles the already egregious cuts to hungry families while somehow creating less total savings than originally proposed be called progress," stated Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY. However, many are happy that the new farm bill does double the amount of money given to families to spend on nutritionally sound food at farmers' markets (who also saw a four-fold increase in their subsidies).
Besides SNAP benefits, the bill focuses on several big issues to agriculture. Direct subsidy payments to farmers have ceased and instead have been replaced with increase insurance coverage. Direct payments currently cost the US $4.5 billion per year. Now, farmers will only be able to receive money only if they have suffered a crop loss of some sort. All subsidies to farmers are now also tied to efforts toward soil conservation; those who decide to farm virgin soil will not receive the same amount of subsidies as those who are farming old land or are attempting to revitalize the soil through conservation efforts.
Unfortunately, however, the bill does not do enough to ensure that subsidies go to those who need them most. Farmers who make up to $900,000 qualify for subsidies, making many wonder how much the government pays to those who are already wealthy. Along with this, the bill does nothing to curtail the fact that 4% of agribusinesses received 74% of subsidies last year (companies like Tyson, Pilgrim's Pride, and Riceland Foods).
Other provisions in the bill include price safety nets to dairy farmers, bringing cotton production into compliance with WTO guidelines, continued subsidies for corn, and research into hemp production in 10 different states.
Even though the bill's cost is massive, agriculture is proving more and more important to the United States economy in recent years. As it currently stands, approximately 16 million jobs in the US depend on agriculture and farming. Since 2000, agriculture exports from the United States have tripled, with each $1 billion in exports accounting for 8,400 new American jobs.
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