We need an Integrated Farm Bill now

The NY Times recently held a “debate” titled The Farm Bill, Beyond the Farm. I put debate in quotes because there weren’t any pieces that directly opposed each other. Instead, each discussed different parts of the farm bill so we didn’t get to see any differences in opinion on the same issues. This group of eight activist-writers includes two lawyers, a social worker, an economist, and a lobbyist. One has a background in biology and ag economics. One grew up on a farm and might still farm in Oklahoma (I wasn’t able to find clear info) but works in media full time. One is a farmer and has experience with prior farm bills. Overall not a terrible group, but I would really have liked to see some people with expertise in agronomy and nutrition. What follows is just one view of some parts of the farm bill from a scientist. If you know of any others, please share the links in the comments!

Support for farmers should support a diverse food system

The farm bill does a great job of encouraging production of commodities. This was needed back when the farm bill was first started, but over time our food system has evolved. The commodities are used to produce cheap additives for cheap highly processed foods and cheap feed for cheap meat. While commodities have their place, I would like to see a bit more balance. Why aren’t we encouraging farmers to produce foods in a way that is more closely aligned with nutritional guidelines? Shouldn’t half of all crop supports go to fruit and vegetable farmers? What about more diversity in grains and legumes to help make that grains/protein side a bit more interesting?

And just what are these crop supports? Insurance is the most important, both in “regular” years and for disasters. Farming is a risky business. After buying seed, fertilizer, farming equipment, and pesticides – the whole crop can be ruined by a turn in the weather. If the weather is too good and there’s too much of a crop on the market, the price can drop. Either way, farmers lose. We need to ensure that farmers are able to pay for supplies and feed their families in addition to feeding America.

Should supports be structured the exact same way that they are now? Of course not. In his piece at the NY Times debate, Roger Johnson (president of the National Farmers Union) suggests tying direct payments to market fluctuation, so that payments decrease when prices are up. This is just one way to save tax dollars without harming farmers and without causing reductions in overall food production. Limiting total benefit per farm could ensure that supports go to farmers who really need itAnother idea is to go with whole-farm insurance instead of individual crop insurance, as suggested by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a few others.

In previous Farm Bills, there have been multiple types of supports. It’s tempting to say that we should simplify and consolidate to just one program or suite of programs. The Environmental Working Group suggests that we move to crop insurance only for yield losses of greater than 30%. The problem with this idea is that we risk shutting out some farmers as we help others. Different crops have different risks, so it’d be hard to find a one-size-fits-all program. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but I’d hate to see more farmers get shut out and have even fewer ag products covered. We have to move carefully.

For an unbiased, plain-language summary Farm Bill ideas , see Farm Safety Net Proposals for the 2012 Farm Bill by the Congressional Research Service. Keith Good has a great list of other Farm Bill resources at FarmPolicy.com.

Support for families should be nutritious

Changes in SNAP benefits have been widely discussed for years. While I see the need for simplicity in the program and I’m not too excited about telling anyone what they can or can not eat – there is something to be said for limitation of what SNAP benefits can be used for. To me, the biggest issue is: what is the purpose of the program?

We know that the purpose of WIC is to provide nutrition pregnant women, infants, and children. The list of approved foods is very proscriptive, down to the amount of vitamins or whole grains per unit of food in some cases. Is the purpose of SNAP benefits also to provide nutrition? Why then, can’t we apply a WIC-style system to SNAP? Surely, the intent of SNAP is not to provide people with potato chips, soft drinks, and birthday cakes.

In November 2011, more than 46 million people were using SNAP benefits – almost 15% of the entire American population. We already know what a restricted food list looks like and how it affects the people using it. We already know that WIC is associated with healthy birth weights and improved nutritional status of children – as shown in the January 2012 USDA report Effects of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC):  A Review of Recent Research. This is our successful case study – it’s time to roll out the restricted food list for SNAP as well.

Additionally, we need to revamp rules for school lunches, so that schools have flexibility to feed kids food they will actually eat but that is actually nutritious. Science-based WIC-like rules would be a good place to start for school lunches as well.

Environment must play a role

The lion’s share of current conservation programs aim to pull land out of production. They only work when payouts are more than can be earned by returning the land to farming. We need long term strategies for protecting habitat and improving on-farm sustainability. Current programs like EQIP and WHIP provide funds for just that. Instead of paying to keep land out of production, these programs pay farmers to improve their land, creating things like buffer strips to cleanse runoff and provide habitat. I’d like to see this idea expanded into improvement of farm methods themselves.

In his piece at the NY Times debate, David Murphy of Food Democracy Now! suggests that the goal should be all organic, with 75% of American farms certified organic by 2025. He also wants all school lunches to be organic by 2020. I get what he’s saying and they’re nice goals, but it’s 100% unrealistic for a number of reasons.

Organic just isn’t as productive as conventional ag. Yields are lower for almost every crop in almost every state, as shown by Steve Savage in Today’s Organic, Yesterday’s Yields. He writes: “to have organically produced the full output of 2008 US crops, it would have been necessary to harvest from an additional 121.7 million acres of cropland”. Frankly, I don’t know where we’d get the land, especially if we want to have a more diversified system where we’re including more crops with lower yields than commodity crops – speciality grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.

Still, the suite of organic methods does include many methods that could be used to use to improve the sustainability of farming. Some of these are already used in conventional ag to some degree. Others were previously used but have been largely replaced by “easier” methods that improve efficiency at the cost of sustainability. Still others are actually unique to organic. And, still others are unique to conventional ag. We need to tease out exactly which methods improve environmental sustainability – which ones improve on-farm and near-farm biodiversity, reduce runoff and emissions, reduce inputs. Then, we need to incentivize implementation of these methods on-farm.

Recently, researchers at Cambridge and Oxford used life cycle assessment (LCA) to calculate energy, greenhouse gases, and biodiversity impacts of three different farm systems. Their work suggested that an integrated system, with a combination of both organic and conventional methods, would result in the most sustainable farm. Instead of David’s goal of 75% organic by 2020, let’s aim for a slow but steady increase in the amount of sustainable methods used by 100% of farms.


Combining reasonable supports for farmers with good nutrition for Americans (and not just the ones using SNAP) and with sustainable methods for all farms is the best Farm Bill that I can think of. What’s your vision for the 2012 Farm Bill?


As I wrote this post, I wasn’t thinking about the definition of sustainable agriculture. But I just realized that the three sections of this post are the three legged stool of sustainable ag: economy, community, and environment. Those sus ag classes must have had a greater effect on me than I thought 🙂