There is a lot to talk about following last Friday’s release of Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow’s draft Farm Bill, but hardly any time to talk about it. The bill is scheduled for mark-up tomorrow. Yes, that’s April 25. After the full mark-up, the Committee bill will move to the Senate floor for debate, probably sometime in May. We’ll have time, then, to do some thorough analysis. Today, however, we’ll try to give you a couple of bites to chew on, with accompanying actions to take. First up, conservation compliance.
In 1985, American taxpayers and farmers entered into a contract to provide a safety net for the country’s food producers in return for protection of critical natural resources. Known as “conservation compliance,” this policy requires farmers to follow conservation plans that limit soil erosion on highly erodible land as well as preventing destruction of wetlands and native grasslands. Farmers who willfully violate their conservation plans risk losing taxpayer funded benefits.
Today, this important connection is at risk. Taxpayer-funded subsidies for crop insurance are not currently linked to conservation compliance as they once were. In the current Farm Bill debate, Congress is considering eliminating Direct Payments, the major subsidy program that is linked to conservation compliance, and move some of those funds to support increased subsidies for crop insurance, which currently lacks compliance requirements. Unless Congress reconnects crop insurance subsidies to conservation compliance, a significant part of farmers’ incentive to follow conservation plans will disappear this year.
Climate change will have significant impacts on world food security in our lifetimes. Indeed, we have already begun to feel the impacts from extreme events—droughts, heat waves, torrential rains leading to floods, with consequent impacts on crop production in Russia, Texas and the U.S. Midwest, Pakistan, Thailand, to name a few recent high-profile locations. Scientists predict that in the changing climate, extreme events such as these will increase in frequency and magnitude.
More insidious and potentially more threatening are slow onset events that over time will incrementally diminish or eliminate crop production in some parts of the world. These slow onset events—temperature rise, salt-water intrusion, loss of soil moisture and water supplies, loss of productive coastal areas due to sea level rise—will reduce crop yields and eliminate agriculture as a livelihood strategy for many.
So the decision by the newly reformed Committee on World Food Security to request its High-level Panel of Experts (HLPE) to conduct a study on climate change and food security was welcomed enthusiastically, especially by many of the civil society organizations working on food and climate change. At the end of 2011, the HLPE established a project team of experts from around the world to write the report. The mandate given to the team was to “review existing assessments and initiatives on the effects of climate change on the most affected and vulnerable regions and populations and the interface between climate change and agricultural productivity, including the challenges and opportunities of adaptation and mitigation policies and actions for food security and nutrition.”
You might think that the devastating impacts of commodity price volatility on global hunger would require policy debates in multiple international organizations. Last week, the United Nations’ General Assembly (UNGA) held a high-level debate on how to address this very issue. The opposing views of panelists concerning the extent to which financial speculation is driving commodities prices comprised a vigorous debate. More troubling is an attempt to squelch U.N. agency policy analysis of this issue and other economic governance topics.
U.N. member countries with globally influential financial and commodity markets are attempting to remove economic policy analysis from the mandate of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). This attack elicited an April 11 letter of protest from former UNCTAD staff, well as protests from developing countries that welcome UNCTAD’s analysis of the impact of financial speculation on commodity prices. According to the U.S. and EU, the U.N. should concern itself with capacity building to enable implementation of or adjustment to policies decided among the Group of 20 countries and at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
What is the “glue” that connects the farm and the fork? With “direct-market” channels like farmers markets and CSAs, we have the privilege of literally shaking the hand that feeds us. In other cases, we need allied businesses in “the middle of the chain” to help make that connection possible—the meat processors, the creameries, the businesses that slice and dice locally grown fruits and vegetables for sale to colleges, hospitals and schools, and the entrepreneurs who turn local veggies into salsa and local grains into tortillas.
These businesses in the middle of the food chain add value to farmers’ products and connect them with markets that many couldn’t reach on their own. These businesses can also help take our local food system to scale, while creating jobs and revitalizing local economies along the way.
But whether you’re talking about a brand new business concept or a small business looking to grow, all local food enterprises need capital—often a combination of equity and borrowing—to get going and to thrive over time.
Unfortunately, the mainstream financial system isn’t always in sync with the financial needs of these innovators. For instance, while banks may have deep knowledge of corn and soy producers’ financing needs, few are equally familiar with small-scale meat processing or the aggregation of organic vegetables. Although venture capitalists and other financiers may be willing to bet on start-ups, the high rates of return and operating control they ask for can make any entrepreneur think twice.
Many of us can remember that moment while eating fresh broccoli, sweet corn or kale and we were struck by how incredibly delicious vegetables taste. It is as if we were eating vegetables for the first time in our lives. In Atina Diffley’s new book, Turn Here Sweet Corn, we learn what it takes to produce that sort of vegetable—the hard work, the love of the land, the capacity for taking risk, and the joys and pains of a farm family.
Read from one perspective, the book is a chronicle of Atina Diffley’s life so far. She paints a portrait of a farm girl with a fierce independent streak, longing to get away, but also longing to farm. As an adventurous young woman, she leaves home, pursues music, marries unhappily, has a child, is introduced to the world of food co-ops, falls in love, and begins a very interesting and challenging life raising organic food with her husband Martin Diffley. Throughout, she draws on the strength of her roots, and nurturing those roots becomes a metaphor that sustains her story.
From another perspective, this is the story of Atina’s relationship with her husband Martin. From her descriptions of falling in love to their conversations decades later, Diffley gives the reader a picture of a true partnership. The Diffleys are fifth generation farmers whose lives and farms are an important piece of our region’s history, of its development from a frontier settlement to a metropolis. Everyone on the family farm had a job, of course; growing up, Martin was the “gardener,” the one who grew vegetables. To Martin, gardening means loving the land more than loving farming.
The importance of the Farm Bill’s Research Title is hard to overstate. It may not have a direct impact on people’s lives as the food assistance programs and farm programs do, but it is a crucial driver in the long-term direction of U.S. agriculture. Its impact goes far beyond the USDA research institutions and also drives research at land grant universities and many other entities.
Through the enactment and implementation of the 2008 Farm Bill, Congress and this current Administration have made some positive changes to how the U.S. Department of Agriculture approaches research, and has provided more opportunities for exploring more holistic, systems-level research questions. One of the positive developments has been the development of USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). AFRI funds research, education, and extension grants that address key problems in sustaining all of agriculture, from production to human nutrition.
USDA recently provided an opportunity for the public to comment on how it conducts the granting of funds through AFRI. We at IATP see opportunities for improvement, and focused on these issues in our comments:
Yesterday our Minnesota Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken introduced a bill in the Senate to protect energy programs in the Farm Bill that are critically important for rural communities. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa led the bill’s introduction, and Sen. Kent Conrad from North Dakota was also a co-sponsor.
This bill sets the stage for the 2012 Farm Bill Energy Title and draws a line in the sand to make sure that programs like the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP)and the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) don’t lose their funding. These programs have helped farmers plant more perennial crops and increase energy efficiency on the farm. Without them, farmers would have a harder time getting over some of the financial hurdles they encounter when getting started making environmental and energy improvements on the farm.
We would like to see the entire Minnesota congressional delegation show similar support and leadership in the House, and we are working together with several otherMinnesota groups to encourage them to do so. See a sample of the letter we sent to all of our federal legislators.
The U.S. Farm Bill—arguably the nation’s largest and most influential food policy tool—is written by Congress every five years. It includes far-reaching programs for crop production, farmers, rural development, energy, conservation and international food aid—the largest portion going to food assistance programs.
With a lot at stake, and serious economic and political challenges at hand, the 2012 Farm Bill will set the stage for the ongoing public debate: In one corner, the industrial food system and powerful lobbyists paid generously to protect the interests of agribusiness and the food industry giants; in the other, growing public support for fair sustainable agriculture that supports farmers, rural communities and protects the environment.
IATP has been ﬁghting for a fair, healthy and sustainable Farm Bill for more than 25 years. In our new What’s at Stake? series, we will analyze how the Farm Bill affects issues we all care about.
Read the entire series, including an introduction, on IATP’s Farm Bill page:
Three years of negotiations on guidelines to govern the tenure of land, fisheries and forests (commonly referred to as the Voluntary Guidelines, or VG) came to a successful close on Friday, March 9 in Rome. Under the auspices of the newly reconfigured Committee on World Food Security (CFS) (housed at the FAO with a secretariat shared among the FAO, the World Food Program and the International Fund for Agriculture and Development, or IFAD), the negotiations were contentious and important.
Ninety-six governments, accompanied by U.N. agencies, civil society organizations, farmer organizations and private sector representatives worked through three rounds of negotiations over as many years to come to agreement. The talks were chaired by the United States, whose negotiators earned the praise of the participants for their commitment to finding agreement across often significant divides. The conclusion of the VGs (see the FAO press release) marks an important step towards providing some protection for small-holders and communities around the world, who have found their productive assets (arable land, or fishing waters, or forests) under siege by a wave of investor interest from private companies and wealthy food importing countries.