Every five years (or so), Congress passes a massive package of agriculture-related legislation known simply as the Farm Bill. This year’s model (which is actually a bit late—the previous version expired in 2012) is responsible for nearly $1 trillion in government spending over the next decade. It might be easy to assume the Farm Bill (which passed the House last week and the Senate on Tuesday) concerns mainly farmers, but it actually affects just about everyone in the United States who eats food. Think you’re in that group? We’re guessing so.
Here’s how the law applies if you:
Want to know where your food comes from: Last year the Obama administration announced an initiative called “country of origin labeling.” COOL. No, seriously, it’s known as COOL. The rule obliges meat producers to show where an animal was born, raised, and slaughtered on the product’s label. The industries don’t like it; they say the mandate is too expensive and claim it’s virtually impossible to keep track of where their animals were born. But despite Big Ag’s lobbying efforts, the Farm Bill keeps intact the COOL requirement, which also applies to things like wild and farm-raised fish, shellfish, peanuts, pecans, ginseng, and macadamia nuts. Keep an eye out for the fine print when you’re browsing the nut aisle.
Buy organic: In order to call their products “organic,” farmers have to get certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which can cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Through a government cost-share program, the USDA can reimburse those certified farmers for up to 75 percent of the certification costs. In this bill, that government’s cost share program gets more than double the funding, increasing from $5 million to $11.5 million a year—a big win for people who like to see the organic seal on their food. There’s also money for research into organic agriculture and a federal program that will market organic edibles.
Rely on food stamps: One of the most contentious parts of the bill has been how much money would go to food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Answer: $756 billion. That number is $8 billion less than the previous allotment, which equals a decrease of about $90 a month for the 850,000 U.S. households that rely on food stamps. The upside is that it could have been worse (to the tune of a $40 billion cut, which House Republicans pushed for).
Support renewable fuels: Energy sources like solar and wind, along with energy efficiency projects and biofuel initiatives, will receive close to $900 million in funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the next decade. The total amount is less than 1 percent of the whole Farm Bill and a more than 20 percent cut from the previous incarnation, which means fewer renewable projects (and fewer jobs).
Love birds: Sharp-tailed grouse, pheasants, and scores of grassland birds and waterfowl depend on habitat protected by the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to stop farming on areas that erode easily (they have to plant grasses instead, providing good bird habitat). It’s the largest federal program to protect private lands and allowed a maximum of 32 million acres to be enrolled under the previous Farm Bill (for contracts that last 10 to 15 years). Under this bill, the maximum number of acres that can be enrolled at a time falls to 24 million.
Care about conservation: In order to keep receiving federal crop insurance subsidies (see next item), farmers will now need to reduce soil erosion and protect wetlands on their properties. And even though the 23 existing conservation programs covered under the Farm Bill will be whittled down to 13, with funding cut by $6 billion over 10 years, there’s more money in the bill for other conservation investments like easements—an agreement between a landowner and the government that protects land from development.
Are, in fact, a farmer: Under the bill, farmers will no longer receive direct cash payments as subsidies. Instead they’ll get more in crop insurance. The Washington Post reports that this provision is the biggest policy change in the bill. Over the last two decades, farmers—those who grow crops and those who don’t—have received roughly $5 billion a year in annual direct payments. Even though that will stop, farmers aren’t expected to get less because of the change. That money will still go to them—the wealthy ones at least—and other forms of agribusiness through a more opaque subsidized insurance program, which pays two-thirds of a farmer’s insurance premiums and most of the claims. Individual farmers, even those who earn more than $900,000 a year, can still receive up to $125,000 annually from the government. The Environmental Working Group estimates that 10,000 farmers with insurance receive $100,000 each year. In comparison, the lowest-earning 80 percent of farmers earn a measly $5,000.
Susan Cosier is OnEarth.org’s managing editor. She previously worked at Audubonmagazine, and has written for a number of science and environmental publications. She has a degree in environmental science from Wesleyan University.