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The New Farm Bill

January 27, 2014

farmingThe long-awaited Farm Bill could be passed by Congress in a matter of days. After languishing in committee for two years, the Washington Post reported on Sunday that a compromise version could be unveiled as early as today, and it could be passed by the Congress in a matter of days. House aides suggested the bill would enjoy broad bipartisan support—something increasingly rare in the US Congress.

While Democratic Senators and Republican House Members have been negotiating for months, the Farm Bill stalled last summer after Republicans demanded deep spending cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps.  But Republicans and Democrats reached a compromise, agreeing to cut spending on SNAP by $9 billion over the next decade.

The bill also restructures the subsidy system, moving away from direct payments to producers and replacing it with a crop insurance program that removes some of the risk of farming.

At least two issues could still present a stumbling block. First, Speaker of the House John Boehner has suggested he would not allow a vote on the Farm Bill if it did not strip funding to a government price support program for dairy farmers. The program, which enjoys broad bipartisan support, has been described by Boehner as a “Soviet-style dairy program.”

Second, rules requiring country-of-origin labels for livestock raised in Mexico or Canada but slaughtered in the United States remain contentious. The World Trade Organization previously found the labeling requirements constituted a violation of its rules.  The meat industry has also sued to prevent the labeling rules from taking place, despite the fact that such labels enjoy widespread support among consumers.

Finally, several fiscally conservative House Republicans are demanding stricter rules governing farm payments under the Department of Agriculture’s actively engaged farmer program, which would limit federal transfers to individuals who do not actually live or work on a farm. But such restrictions have been opposed by Southern lawmakers, who argue that such transfers are necessary to maintain a rural way of life.

In the end, it seems likely that compromises will be worked out for most of the remaining issues, and we’ll have a new Farm Bill. But whether we’re unlikely to see the more dramatic changes that would dramatically improve our food system remains to be seen.

[Updated 1/28/14].

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