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Upcoming Farm Bill, budget cuts pose concerns

As Congressional leaders prepare spending cuts for the 2012 Farm Bill, large companies, farmers and the general public wonder where those cuts will hit.

Many expect large cuts in programs and subsidies because the Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction—also known as the supercommittee—is currently in the process of trimming more than one trillion dollars from the federal budget, said Norman Wirzba, professor of theology, ecology and rural life. The two chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, forming a so-called “gang of four,” submitted recommended cuts to the Joint Select Committee Nov. 18.

The Farm Bill is renewed every five years—the last bill went into effect in 2008—but Congress started work on the next bill to finish it before next year’s presidential election. The finalized Farm Bill is expected to be included in the supercommittee’s budget cut recommendations, due to Congress Dec. 2.

Both the process by which the cuts are decided and the nature of the cuts themselves have drawn criticism from agricultural experts.

Lee Miller, a consultant for the Union of Concerned Scientists and a Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Nicholas School of the Environment, said he has concerns about the legitimacy of the Farm Bill’s legislative process.

“The truth is that this Farm Bill is being written behind closed doors by lobbyists for commodity agriculture,” Miller wrote in an email Nov. 15. “It will pass because the people with the most money—and therefore loudest voices—in Washington have a very vested interest in maintaining the status quo, and the legislators from urban districts—and states—are literally bought off using the massive money put into nutrition programs.”

Under the current system, the federal government pays a certain amount to farmers based on the volume of crops they produce, Wirzba said. Without subsidies, most farmers would go bankrupt because the cost of raising crops is currently higher than the selling price of the crops.

Subsidies also keep food prices from rising for goods that consumers have become used to buying cheaply, Wirzba said.

“Government subsidies for the commodities that make these products, like corn, allow poor people to buy cheap food,” he noted.

Wirzba said from a cost-cutting perspective, decreasing subsidies would be logical and beneficial. Congress, however, is unlikely to do so because of heavy lobbying from large food producers and distributing companies and because not everyone will benefit from the cut of subsidies.

“Over the last few cycles, there has been a farm bill that rewards over-production,” Wirzba said. “[For instance,] corn is a nutrient-hungry plant. It’s very hard on the land.... It negatively affects both the soil and the water.”

Sophomore Laura Mistretta, an intern for Student Action With Farm Workers, noted the human effects of the subsidies.

“The corn subsidies are way too high—they have given our farmers advantages for years,” Mistretta said. “Subsidies have a huge impact on the global economy, especially on Mexico—the ability of American farmers to sell their corn for less than it costs to make it is a huge factor for undocumented immigration.”

Because it is supported by Duke, the Duke Farm will not be affected by the bill, Miller said. He added that he hopes the new bill will encourage sustainable farming operations similar to the Duke Farm and will adopt measures like the “Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2011,” to reduce barriers to first-time farmers.

“The average age of a farmer is 58-years-old in the U.S., an increase of eight years from just a generation ago, so it would be vital for the bill to incentivize and aid younger farmers, who would be educated about and committed to sustainable food system principles,” Miller said.

Ginny Crothers works in sales and marketing for Eastern Carolina Organics, one of the local organic farms that supplies produce to Bon Appetit dining services at Duke. The Farm Bill is not expected to directly affect the ECO farm, she said. She worried, however, that the bill will serve as a “crutch for monoculture agribusinesses and big food corporations.”

“Our growers don’t receive much, if anything, in terms of government funding, but that is something that could and should change,” Crothers wrote in an email Friday.

Americans are largely uninformed about the economic structures that produce their food, but the 2012 Farm Bill has the potential to change that, Wirzba said.


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