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About the Farm Bill

Keeps Farmers Farming and Eaters Eating

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A young Oklahoman learns to drive the family farm's combine.

A young Oklahoman learns to drive the family farm's combine.

Jane Talbot-Wyrick

Who should know about the U.S. Farm Bill? Everybody who eats.

Every five years, the U.S. Congress considers a bill that, no matter what its official title might be at time, is commonly called the "Farm Bill." The Farm Bill reauthorizes funding for most federal farm, food, and nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program, long known as food stamps.

In essence, funds allocated by the Farm Bill support federal government programs intended to keep America's farmers farming, so America's eaters can keep eating plenty of safe and nutritious food. Pretty important stuff.

According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, 48.7% of the nation's total land area is managed by farmers and ranchers, making them the federal government's irreplaceable partners in solving our environmental and open-land conservation problems.

After the Farm Bill is signed into law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) develops the detailed federal regulations that actually implement the law's programs and policies.

Where the Money Goes

While most of the money allocated in the Farm Bill traditionally goes to nutrition assistance programs like SNAP, funds from the Farm Bill support everything from conservation to food safety and rural development.

The Farm Bill enacted in 2008 authorized the spending of $604 billion through fiscal year 2017 for commodity price and income supports, farm credit, trade, agricultural conservation, bioenergy research, rural development, energy, and foreign and domestic nutrition programs such as food stamps.

Historically, about 80% of the funds authorized by the Farm Bill go to the SNAP food stamp and other nutrition assurance program. About 15% of the funds are designated for farm commodity subsidies and crop insurance, with the rest going to food safety, conservation, rural development, renewable energy and other farm programs.

According to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, federal spending on the SNAP food stamp program grew from $37.2 billion in 2008 to $74.9 billion in 2011, a 50% increase.

SNAP UPDATE - July 12, 2013: The 2013 Farm Bill may not contain funding for the SNAP program. In a disagreement with Democrats over cuts in SNAP funding, House Republican leaders succeeded on July 12, 2013 in passing a version of the Farm Bill without SNAP funding and plan to take up a stand-alone SNAP funding bill later in 2013. The House had earlier defeated a version of the Farm Bill that included $20 billion in cuts to SNAP funding. However, House and Senate Republicans have demanded over $40 billion in SNAP cuts.
Also See: Welfare Programs Dominate US Budget
During Congress' consideration of the 2013 Farm Bill, the Senate-approved version of the bill proposed cutting $4.1 billion in SNAP benefits, while the House version called for a $20 billion cut.

In fiscal year 2012, a total of $74.6 billion in SNAP benefits were paid out to more than 47 million Americans, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

Keeping them Down on the Farm

Of course, without our farmers and ranchers, those 47 million Americans would find very little American-grown food to use their SNAP food stamps to buy.

Essential to keeping America's dwindling number of farmers farming, the Farm Bill funds the federal farm safety net, comprised mainly of commodity farm product price support and crop insurance programs.

The 2008 Farm Bill provided $6.4 billion for commodity price support and $5.7 billion for crop insurance. To supplement crop insurance, the Farm Bill also provides funding to the Small Business Administration's Disaster Loan Program.

With farming recognized as one of the nation's most dangerous occupations, the Farm Bill also provides funding for programs intended to ensure the occupational health and safety of farmers and farm workers.

Other provisions of the Farm Bill fund programs to benefit rural residents and communities, including rural development and health programs, and the Rural Housing Repair Loans and Grants program.

Food Safety

The Farm Bill also provides much of the funding needed to keep the U.S. food safety system running and improving.

Typically, the Farm Bill includes several provisions addressing meat and poultry and egg product inspections conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and food supplement safety programs conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In addition, the Farm Bill provides funds for inspecting imported food and agricultural goods for contamination or misbranding.

The 2008 Farm Bill also provided $10 million over a 10-year period for the USDA's food safety education programs.

Agriculture and Civil Rights

In 1999, the USDA agreed to settle the largest civil rights lawsuit in U.S. history. In the suit, African-American farmers claimed the USDA had discriminated against them in implementation of Farm Bill programs, especially farm loans. The 2008 Farm Bill included a provision ordering the USDA to settle similar lawsuits filed since 1999 by Native American, Hispanic and women farmers.
Also See: How the USDA Has Addressed Civil Rights
The 2008 Farm Bill also created a number of new programs within the USDA intended to provide targeted assistance to "socially disadvantaged farmers," including African-American, Native American, Hispanic, and women farmers. This assistance, now authorized by the current and future Farm Bills comes in the form of targeted farm loans, conservation programs, technical assistance and outreach programs, and cost sharing payments and incentives.

Genetically Modified Foods

In the 2013 Farm Bill, some members of Congress sought to address the presence of genetically modified foods in the American marketplace.

On May 23, 2013, the U.S. Senate voted 71 to 27 against an amendment to the Farm Bill that would have allowed the individual states to require special labeling of any products or organisms.

"The concept we're talking about today is a fairly commonsense and non-radical idea," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), the amendment's sponsor, told the Senate. "All over the world, in the European Union, in many other countries around the world, dozens and dozens of countries, people are able to look at the food that they are buying and determine through labeling whether or not that product contains genetically modified organisms."

Opposition to the amendment came from a bipartisan group of Senators, including Agriculture Committee chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), who argued that the Farm Bill was not the proper place to legislate the labeling of genetically modified foods.

Noting that the Food and Drug Administration had long-established guidelines and procedures for food labeling, Sen. Stabenow stated, "This particular amendment would interfere with the FDA's science-based process to determine what food labeling is necessary for consumers."

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