Secrecy + Haste = Farm Bill Status Quo

Late last week, the Senate passed its version of the Farm Bill - the sprawling legislation that dictates what and how we eat.

Late last week, the Senate passed its version of the Farm Bill - the sprawling legislation that dictates what and how we eat. From the perspective of consumer protection and leveling the playing field for small and midsized family farmers, the Senate bill does little to address the problems of consolidation and anti-competitive business practices that plague our food system.

Although the Senate bill made changes to commodity policy that will be touted as reform, the bill reinforced prior farm policies that favor large industrial-scale agriculture and overproduction of commodity crops like corn and soybeans. Only a few companies sell what farmers need (like seeds, fertilizer and tractors) and only a few firms buy what farmers raise, which means they pay more for supplies and get less for their crops and livestock. The four largest companies in each industry slaughter nearly all the beef, process two-thirds of the pork, sell half the groceries and process about half the milk in the United States.

This is no accident. It's the direct result of lobbying campaigns by major agribusinesses, industry trade associations and the policies that Congress passed on their behalf. And the process in which the Farm Bill was decided is even more disconcerting. Started in secret under the guise of the Supercommittee budget slashing process last fall, the farm bill has had little input from anyone other than a handful of legislators and the Big Ag lobbyists who pay the most to play. The secret farm bill developed for the Supercommittee got scant scrutiny from the Senate Agriculture Committee. The 1,000-page proposal was released only a few days before the Committee finalized the nearly trillion-dollar legislation in three short hours - that's about $90 million a second.

Then, when the Farm Bill finally made its way to the Senate's agenda last week, nearly 300 amendments flooded in. From the absurd (ending the federal food stamp program and taking on Canadian geese) - to the outright irrelevant (aid to Pakistan and protecting the Pentagon budget), many of the amendments had little to do with farming or food.

Meanwhile, food, farm and environmental advocates scrambled to keep up with the chaotic process that seemed to intentionally evade public inquiry. Food & Water Watch's focus was to ensure that imported products are subject to strong food safety regulations, livestock producers are protected from market manipulation, the nutrition safety net is preserved, and investments in local food systems, organic farming and a diverse seed supply are made.

Then, this past Monday evening, the deal was announced: they would start a "vote-o-rama" to consider only 73 of the amendments. There were some important amendments on this list that would make the farm bill stronger and some that would make it significantly weaker. The biggest disappointment was that no amendments on competition in livestock markets made the cut, including an amendment by Senator Grassley that would have banned the ownership of livestock by meatpackers and Senator Enzi's livestock market reform amendment, or an amendment by Senator Tester that would have required 5 percent of USDA's research into plant and animal varieties to focus on something other than genetically engineered varieties. On Tuesday 30 amendments were considered by the full Senate, 36 on Wednesday and seven Thursday.

Food & Water Watch picked six amendments from the list of 73 that we thought were particularly important to watch. Here's how they fared:

Amendments we opposed:

  • Senator McCain's amendment that would repeal a provision from the 2008 Farm Bill that created a USDA inspection program for domestic and imported catfish. This is a simple provision to protect consumers from potentially dangerous farmed fish imported from Asia where food safety standards are lax. Even U.S. catfish farmers are asking for more inspection. However, this misguided amendment passed.
  • Senator Toomey's amendment to get rid of the Organic Certification Cost Share program, a program to help farmers who want to shift to growing certified organic crops and just a tiny fraction of the overall farm bill budget, rightfully failed.
  • Common sense prevailed as Senator Toomey's amendment that would exempt community water systems from a requirement to mail drinking water consumer confidence reports failed.

Amendments we supported:

  • Senator Gillibrand's amendment that would restore critical funding to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program failed.
  • Senator Merkley's amendment that would develop crop insurance products for organic crops passed.
  • The debate on the amendment by Senators Sanders and Boxer to allow states to require labeling of genetically engineered foods was long overdue. This amendment received 26 votes with 73 Senators voting against it. Obviously, there's much more work to be done to ensure our right to know what we're eating, but the fact that this amendment initiated a debate on the Senate floor is a solid step in the right direction.

Now that the Senate has done their bill, it is the House's turn. And the House version may look nothing like what the Senate came up with. The House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to take up their version of the bill on July 11. While most predictions are that the committee will finish a version of the bill, there's a lot of speculation about if and when the full House will deal with the farm bill this summer. Since the current farm bill expires at the end of September, expect more chaos and drama this summer.

Find out if your Senator voted for or against GE labeling.

The full Senate Roll Call Votes on the Farm Bill can be found here.

A version of this blog first appeared in Civil Eats.

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