Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Farm Bill and Agricultural Policy

Ronald J. Vos


June 21, 2013

By Ronald J. Vos

A few weeks ago, the US Senate passed a new five-year farm bill.  It also passed a similar version of the farm bill last year. Since the US House of Representatives did not pass a new farm bill last year, the existing farm bill was extended for one year. The Senate version of the farm bill differs from the expected House version of the same, so a conference committee will need to deal with the differences between the versions. If the members reach a compromise, the bill will then be resubmitted for passage by both houses.  The president has indicated that he is uncertain if he will sign the farm bill as it stands now. At this point, frustration about inaction seems to be the driving force in moving the farm bill forward. The farm bill has already been delayed months from what was originally anticipated.

One important difference between this year’s farm bill and last year’s is that the Speaker of the House John Boehner has indicated his general support of the farm bill and that he will allow it to come to the floor for debate. Last year, the House declined to take up the issue in part because it was an election year and there was conflict over the amount to cut from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Some estimates indicate that one in seven Americans now use the SNAP program and cutting that program in an election year would be unpopular.

To call this a farm bill is a misnomer. It is not just a farm bill. It is an omnibus bill that includes a broad range of programs, covers many areas, and has many and varied constituents.  For example, both versions of the farm bill would cost about $100 billion annually with almost $80 billion of that annual total going to domestic food aid, meaning that only 20% will be available for other programs. Even at the projected cost of $100 billion annually, the farm bill cost would be less than 3% of the total annual US government budget.  Major cuts in government spending to balance the budget will need to come from other places besides the farm bill.

I do not intend at this time to address the many parts of the farm bill, or debate if we should even have a farm bill. This needs to be done on an issue by issue basis.  However, there are a few items that should be noted.  One is that direct payments to farmers are eliminated under both versions of the bill. (Direct payments were implemented in the past in order for the United States to comply with the World Trade Organization (WTO) regulations which deemed these types of payments to be non-distorting for trade compared to other subsidies.) Another is that crop insurance would get increased subsidies under both versions of the bill. Both of these items have received considerable attention in the press and are somewhat controversial.  Dropping direct payments is something that most people in agriculture would agree to at this time and it would save money, whereas the crop insurance subsidies would cost extra.

One of the characteristics of good policy development in a democracy is compromise and consensus.  If all parties affected by a policy are somewhat dissatisfied or somewhat satisfied, that is usually an indication that this is likely good policy since rarely is a policy developed exactly as desired. Unfortunately, in the present political climate, we have been led to believe that compromise is bad. While one should never compromise on basic principles, establishment of good policy requires compromise. This is true of agricultural policy and is a necessary aspect of being part of a democracy.  Only in a dictatorship that agrees exactly with one’s position is compromise unnecessary in order to develop policy.

When citizens follow a narrow anthropocentric view, they are primarily concerned with how policies will directly affect their lives. A broader anthropocentric view may include concern for how policies affect the human race both now and in the future. The result may be that public justice becomes “just us” with little or no concern for the non-human creation.  A theocentric view that acknowledges that God is Creator, that humans were created as faithful stewards of the rest of creation, and that human and non-human creation exists for God’s pleasure is the foundation needed to develop good agricultural policy. 

Consider this: what if specific cropping practices that enhance soil health and reduce soil erosion were a requirement for obtaining subsidized crop insurance at a certain level?  This would be good for society by protecting soil, a natural resource, and would add to the long-term productivity of a farmer’s important resource.  In the Senate version of the farm bill, such conditions are not required.

- Ronald J. Vos is Professor of Agriculture at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”