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Op-Ed: Keeping our Eyes on the Farm Bill

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In a recent New York Review of Books essay, I argued that few non-farmers – which is most of the U.S. population – know about or pay attention to the Farm Bill, the legislative vehicle for much of the nation’s agricultural and food policies. (Agriculture and food are not synonymous, but that’s for another day.) I also argued that non-farmers should pay more attention if they want to counter the long-time dominance of Big Agriculture in decisions shaping which basic commodities get produced, how, how much, by who, and with what long-term ecological and societal impacts.

Most readers of this blog know about the Farm Bill (its generic label). For the less familiar, it is a sprawling “omnibus” legislation that shapes production of agricultural commodities and contains provisions on agricultural research, farm credit, insurance, rural development, trade, conservation, and nutrition—notably the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.

In contrast to a century ago, when a quarter of Americans lived on the farm, most members of Congress today hail from urban and suburban areas, where most of us now live. As a result, the comparatively few legislators representing agricultural areas need the votes of colleagues who wouldn’t know a harrow from a plow. Getting those votes requires including in the Farm Bill provisions relevant to the non-farming majority. That deal starts with SNAP, which today provides food assistance to roughly 42 million Americans. The equation is simple for most Democrats – no SNAP, no Farm Bill – and rural legislators keep SNAP in the tent to get the votes needed to renew commodity programs that few urban legislators otherwise care about.

But SNAP is only part of the deal. Relatively recent additions to the Farm Bill include provisions supporting “specialty” crops – the vegetables and fruits members of the National Young Farmers Coalition tend to produce – urban agriculture, conservation, and “healthy incentives” programs to enable SNAP enrollees to purchase produce at local farmers markets. The inclusion of these programs over the past two decades reflects the growing leverage of “non-traditional” interests in agricultural and food policies.

Read more at the National Young Farmers Coalition.

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