YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Q & A

Farm bill affects more than land and furrows

The measure also holds sway over food safety, the environment, international trade and school lunches.

December 02, 2007|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

The farm bill -- which sets the nation's agricultural agenda every five years -- could be revived this week after stalling two weeks ago in the Senate.

Some background:

Question: Does the farm bill matter if you're not a farmer?

Answer: The Food and Energy Security Act of 2007, this year's farm bill, sets the country's agriculture policy but it also has consequences for the environment, international trade, food safety, rural development and food assistance for poor families. Lawmakers enact a new farm bill every five years. This year's bill has a price tag of $288 billion and has mushroomed to 1,600 pages. It has come under attack from an array of groups, including physicians and taxpayer advocates, as well as the White House, which has threatened to veto it.

Q: Is this farm bill more controversial than those in the past?

A: Yes. Years of simmering anger about the focus of agricultural policy on a small number of crops and on its wider effect came to a head this year, especially in the Senate.

Historically, farm-state senators from the South and Midwest have funneled billions of dollars in subsidies to a few commodity crops: cotton, wheat, rice, corn and soybeans. Seven states get more than half of all farm spending.

Meantime, important agricultural states that do not concentrate on the favored crops get few benefits. California gets little in subsidy payments even though it leads the nation in agricultural output. Much of the state's farm output is in fruits, vegetables and other crops not covered by commodity subsidies.

Opponents of this year's bill say subsidies should be reexamined, especially because crop prices are at record levels.

Lawmakers from states that benefit from the traditional system argue that the nation's food supply needs a strong safety net. These lawmakers are backed by one of Washington's strongest lobbies.

Q: Is this primarily a battle between different kinds of farmers?

A: No. Some organizations that represent physicians are also intent on changing the bill. They say that subsidizing crops such as grain and sugar beets contributes to the steadily rising levels of childhood obesity and diabetes.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a liberal advocacy group, says subsidies drive overproduction of corn and soybeans, which are often converted into high-fructose corn syrup and fatty processed foods.

Environmentalists are also actively fighting the bill. They say 2 out of 3 farmers who seek to participate in the bill's conservation programs are turned away because of lack of funds. They want crop subsidies to be scaled back to fund more conservation.

They also say that, by focusing on large-scale production of basic crops, subsidies encourage heavy use of pesticides and fertilizer that damage and exhaust the soil.

Taxpayer groups, meantime, denounce crop subsidies as exorbitant handouts. Some rural groups also say the system favors large-scale operators, drives up land prices and squeezes out smaller farms.

Q: Why has the administration threatened to veto the farm bill?

A: The White House has said the Senate bill's $288-billion price tag is too expensive. "Farm equity has risen approximately $200 billion per year for the past five years," the White House said in a recent statement. "Despite this strength, the bill continues to increase price supports and send farm subsidies to people who are among the wealthiest 2% of American tax filers. . . . Payments should be targeted to those who really need them."

Q: How does the farm bill affect city dwellers?

A: Doctors, nutrition advocates and anti-poverty groups say the bill has an immense effect on cities and the way urban Americans eat. About 60% of the farm bill appropriation covers nutrition programs, such as food stamps, that help poor Americans get enough to eat. For the last few years, hunger in America has been growing and the food-stamp programs have not kept up with rising costs, lawmakers and anti-poverty groups say.

The 2007 farm bill would adjust food-stamp payments to reflect changes in the cost of living and treat families with children more generously. It would also allow low-income families with retirement or education savings accounts to qualify for food benefits without first spending down those savings.

Critics say that the commodity-crop subsidies not only make fatty, processed foods the cheapest on grocery shelves, but they also increase the use of such foods in school lunches served to millions of children every day.

Q: How would the 2007 farm bill affect California?

A: For the first time, the bill would give funding to fruits, nuts and vegetables, the core of the state's agriculture. These "specialty crops" account for half of all agricultural sales in the United States.

The bill would add $2 billion in funding for specialty crops in the form of money for research, marketing and support for growers wanting to transition to organic farming.

Q: What's happening in Congress?

Los Angeles Times Articles