The Farm Bill is a notoriously bland piece of legislation, and Congress’ inability to pass and reform it has come to symbolize the political polarization of what should be non-partisan issues. The last Farm Bill was passed in 2014, which was a complex piece of legislation that works to manage much of American agriculture; the next should, be negotiated in 2018 and take effect in 2019. Opposition to the Farm Bill tends to be as violent as the subject seems to be esoteric: a Google search for “U.S. farm subsidy system” yields titles such as “Our Crazy Farm Subsidies, Explained,” and “Taxpayers turn U.S. Farmers into Fat Cats with Subsidies.”
It is tempting to look at the Farm Bill as just another symptom of Congress’s inefficiency. That it took two years of brinkmanship to update a piece of legislation geared toward an industry that comprises only about one percent of America’s GDP feels understandably ridiculous, especially considering that it’s in the interest of both Republicans and Democrats to ensure a reliable food supply and America’s access to it. Food is easily branded as a unifying human concern that crosses boundaries—of course we can all agree on eliminating hunger and stabilizing food production; and therefore the political weight of the farm bill seems manufactured. In reality, though, food is quintessentially, and inherently, political.
Take the food stamp program: many don’t realize that 80 percent of the farm bill’s budget goes to funding food stamps. Central to the impasse that gave way to the 2014 bill was a debate between Republicans and Democrats over how much money should be allocated to that program: an arm of the much broader debate on social spending. But add the impact of current agricultural policies on one’s ability to purchase food and the complexities begin to compound.
You walk into a grocery store—what is most affordable? The answer is generally foods that are commodity-based—high fructose corn syrup, a cheap hamburger; foods made with corn, wheat, soy, rice, sorghum, dairy, and livestock. Recent research has linked increased intake of these foods to higher rates of obesity, coronary heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, yet those same products receive the vast majority of U.S. agricultural subsidies. This raises the question, is nutrition a right or a privilege? Those who are food insecure are limited to these unhealthier foods, whereas those with more capital have access to more options.
To support the farm subsidy system and to support government subsidization of farmers and farmworkers are two very different things. Even the purpose of the subsidy system as it exists today remains painfully unclear. As such, it draws criticism from both the left and the right even as neither side can figure out exactly what they want to do with it. Is an agricultural subsidy liberal or conservative? Having originated with the New Deal, it would seem to be liberal, yet today subsidies are criticized by the left for their social impacts. Ironically, the very farmers whom subsidies sought to help are the ones now hurt by them. These subsidies encourage farmers to plant monoculture crops in order to make the most income possible, which is a risky agricultural practice. Subsidization is a strong government intervention in the private sphere, yet conservatives tend to be backed by corporations both big and small and must balance the priorities of both segments of the sector. The vested interests of agricultural giants make the current subsidy system hard to change, while rural poverty remains marginalized in public policy, only to erupt in the rise of populism. It’s not hard to see that there are no easy answers.
The fate of small and medium-sized farms, of local agriculture, of fruit and vegetable production have implications for us all. And while subsidy reform looks to be a win-win, to totally restructure a piece of legislation that has been permanent since 1949 is scary and unpredictable, especially in the short term. If anything, the Farm Bill is emblematic of the troubles endemic to politics and not just those associated with today’s party polarization. If food is a right, then the Farm Bill is what can define it as such, through reform of subsidy programs and an honest attempt at working across the aisle.