The 2014 Farm Bill: A Mixed Bag
After years of negotiations, Congress passed the Farm Bill on Feb. 4, an important feat given that the 950-page bill has many potential impacts on health and nutrition in the United States. Though President Obama has not yet signed the bill into law, it’s not too early to weigh in on the victories and losses we can expect to see from some notable changes to the massive legislation. The three major accomplishments below signal a growing awareness of the wide-ranging effects of agricultural policy on health.
1. Direct payments are no more.
The first piece of good news is that Congress finally did away with the controversial subsidies known as “direct payments,” which farmers currently receive regardless of whether they actually grow any crops. These subsidies heavily favor meat and dairy producers because the main recipients are those who grow (or have grown) “feed grains.” In other words, direct subsidies make feed-grade corn and soy cheap and plentiful, allowing the meat and dairy industry to expand production of the foods that make Americans sick. Now it will be at least a little more difficult for urban-dwelling Big Ag executives to cash in on these payments.
2. The “King amendment” has been overthrown.
Congress threw out the infamous King amendment, an attempt to boost egg industry profits and knock down states’ rights to protect public health and animals. The King amendment would have nullified—by some estimates—up to hundreds of existing state laws defending food safety, farm workers, animals, and the environment.
3. A new pilot program adds plant-based protein sources to school meals.
School children across the country will benefit from a new “Pulse Health Pilot” program, which allows schools to incorporate more beans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas into children’s breakfasts and lunches. These foods—healthful, inexpensive alternatives to animal products—are excellent sources of fiber, protein, and a variety of micronutrients. This is a major win in the fight against childhood obesity and other chronic diseases, and we hope the program will soon be expanded.
1. Crop insurance subsidies got a big boost.
Critics are calling the move to end direct subsidies “a classic bait-and-switch”: a simple redirection of taxpayer dollars toward a less controversial form of government handout. Much of the little savings Congress gained from cutting direct payments has been reallocated to crop insurance subsidies, which also artificially drive the production of disease-causing meat and dairy products.
2. There’s more “aid” for those who need the least help.
The 2014 Farm Bill includes $5 billion in new “disaster aid”: taxpayer funds livestock farmers receive when the animals under their care die during natural disasters. This is yet another subsidy for the meat and dairy industry. And no one’s pointing out the obvious irony: natural disasters are becoming more volatile thanks to climate change, for which the livestock industry is largely responsible.
3. Federal nutrition programs stay the same: full of junk.
Aside from the Pulse Health Pilot program mentioned above, federal nutrition programs like the National School Lunch Program, SNAP, and WIC will not change. This is bad news because these programs will continue to promote the consumption of junk foods like processed meat and cheese, only fueling America’s obesity, heart disease, and diabetes epidemics. But despite the lack of progress in the Farm Bill, there is a rising tide of support for improvements to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Check out our latest SNAP report for the details on this growing momentum for change.
So what’s the final word?
Though overall still an enormous giveaway to meat and dairy producers, the 2014 Farm Bill does offer a glimmer of hope for a healthier future. The Pulse Health Pilot and the downfall of direct payments and the King amendment represent a turning point, and voices like ours—urging for more attention to be paid to nutrition and health—are being heard loud and clear.