The U.S. Senate this week is debating a mammoth farm bill that touches on everything from sugar to food stamps and sets terms for the taxpayer-funded safety net for farmers. Kojo explores what the nation’s updated agriculture and nutrition policy will mean at the grocery store.
- Philip Brasher Editor of CQ’s Executive Briefing on Agriculture and Food
- Scott Faber Vice President for Government Affairs, Environmental Working Group
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, how Josue Lajeunesse works two jobs in New Jersey to provide clean water in Haiti, but first on Capitol Hill this week, senators are debating the nation's food policy. Should more taxpayer dollars go to farmers or to food stamps, insurance for wheat growers or subsidies for rice growers, incentives to buy vegetables or studies of soft drinks? The farm bill, working its way through Congress, funds the nation's food stamp program to help low-income families buy food and it addresses the perennial question of how to subsidize farmers regardless of what they plant or sell.
NNAMDIBut some experts say the biggest influence on farm policy and food selection doesn't come from Capitol Hill, but from, well, you, everyday consumers whose preferences at the grocery store are changing what we grow and how we eat. Joining me to explore how the farm bill and consumer choice influence food policy in the U.S. is Scott Faber. He is vice president of Government Affairs with the Environmental Working Group. Scott Faber, thank you for joining us.
MR. SCOTT FABERGreat to be here.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone from Capitol Hill is Philip Brasher. He is editor of CQ's Executive Briefing on Agriculture and Food Policy. Philip Brasher, thank you for joining us.
MR. PHILIP BRASHERYeah, thank you. Great to be here.
NNAMDIWe're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Where would you like to see more money spent, on helping farmers or on helping families on food stamps? 800-433-8850. You can send email to Kojo@wamu.org or go to our website KojoShow.org, ask a question, make a comment there. Or simply shoot us a tweet @KojoShow. Phil Brasher, I'll start with you. The farm bill will affect U.S. food policy for the next decade. Where are the big increases and where are the big cuts?
BRASHERWell, overall, Kojo, there's a cut. We're talking about the estimated cost of these programs carried out over 10 years, although this is actually a five-year bill, but it's close to a trillion dollars. They're trimming that by $23 billion. About 80 percent of that is food stamps. It's about $800 billion over 10 years, the food stamp program. It would get cut by a relatively small amount, but significant, four and a half billion dollars. The other thing I would say, there's some money coming out of conservation programs, about 10 percent cut there.
BRASHERAnd then there's a cut in the commodity programs and crop insurance, the ones that we tend to focus on a lot. Of the total spending, that's about 15 percent of the total spending in the bill and it gets cut. And there's some shift of some of the money over into crop insurance.
NNAMDIScott Faber, the classic farm bill debate is whether the government should pay farmers regardless of how much they actually plant and sell. This bill would end most of these so-called direct payments to farmers and add more money to the crop insurance program that helps in case crops fail or prices decline. Why the shift?
FABERWell, it's certainly a good thing that we are no longer in the business of providing these direct payments which are provided to landowners and some folks, people who live near you and I Kojo, in cities, regardless of whether they farm, regardless of whether they need the money. Unfortunately, most of the savings, which is about $50 billion over 10 years is plowed right back into a new revenue guarantee for farmers. So we're gonna provide a guarantee, some farmers up to 89 percent of their average revenue and plowed into the crop insurance program, which I like to call the secret safety net.
FABERIt's now going to cost about $90 billion. And unlike direct payments, the subsidies we give for farmers to buy crop insurance have no limits. So there's no limit on who can get those subsidies. And there's no limit on how much they can get. So as a result there were 26 farmers just last year who each received more than $1 million from the government -- your money -- to go out and buy insurance. If you can, imagine the government giving you money to buy your car insurance or homeowners insurance. That's essentially what we've done, is we're helping to subsidize farmers to buy insurance.
FABERAnd because there are no limits, that's creating an un-level playing field for the smaller family farmers who are struggling to get by.
NNAMDIBy far, the biggest chunk of money in the farm bill, as Philip mentioned earlier, goes to the food stamps program that helps low-income families, but as Philip also mentioned, the bill cuts more than $4 billion over 10 years from the current food stamp budget. What would that mean for families who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP to pay for their meals?
FABERWell, what it means for the families that would be touched by this particular cut is that those families would each receive on average -- if they lived in, for example, New York state, they would receive on average a cut of about $90 a month. And the benefit they're getting now to go out and buy food -- these are obviously very poor families. They're struggling to meet a lot of other needs, including their dietary needs. And so it's a significant cut for these family centers.
FABERKirsten Gillibrand of New York offered an amendment last night that failed, that would have restored those cuts by cutting subsidies, not to farmers, but to insurance companies where we're slated to provide about $13 billion over the next 10 years to crop insurance companies to sell farmers insurance policies. I know it sounds a bit like paying Microsoft to sell me software, but that's essentially what we're doing. And unfortunately, Senator Gillibrand's amendment failed. There may be other opportunities as this bill moves through the Senate and through the House to restore those cuts, but the more likely...
NNAMDISenator Gillibrand is Democrat of New York.
FABERDemocrat of New York. The more likely scenario is the House will propose even deeper cuts and that the folks who rely on the SNAP program, what was known as the food stamp program, are gonna be facing even bigger cuts in the House.
NNAMDILet's go to the phones. Here is Diana in Montgomery County, Md. Diana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANAOh, great. Thank you, Kojo. Very interesting topic. I'm calling with two things. One is to say congratulations to Mr. Faber is it or Farber for...
DIANAThank you. The Environmental Working Group has an astonishingly good website. I recommend everybody go look at it. They rate everything from bottled water to sunscreens to, you know, cosmetics and children's products. It's been an eye-opening experience for me. The second thing is, here in Montgomery County we have one-third of the county set aside 35 years ago as an agricultural reserve.
DIANAThose small farmers, most of whom are small farmers, even the ones who raise, you know, commodities like soy, corn, whatever, those are not the people getting these billions of dollars that you guys have been talking about.
DIANAThe small farmers are the ones who need to be encouraged and they're not the ones getting this money. And this bill does not fix it. It makes it worse. So I'm mostly hear as a defense for, you know, cutting out the people trying to raise small-farm products in a sustainable, sometimes organic, sometimes not, fashion and still keep buying, as you said, you know, paying somebody to pay software for the computer that they're giving you anyway. It just makes no sense.
NNAMDIDiana, thank you very much for you call. And before Scott or Philip responds, I'll go to Steven in Alexandria, Va. because he has a question that may help us to get at the aspect of this issue that Diana was discussing. Here is Steven. Steven, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVENHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. Love the show. My question is, is it still going to hurt the small organic farmers of the country or is it going to be more beneficial to, like, the big, giant profit farmers like...
NNAMDIPhilip Brasher, what's in this bill for small and local and organic farmers?
BRASHERRight. There are in fact some provisions, mostly provisions that are being continued. It levels, more or less, where they have been. There is a provision for farmers markets and local foods. The idea is to encourage expansion of farmers markets and roadside stands and CSAs, the subscription programs that are really popular in a lot of areas. And there's some funding that was added yesterday on the floor to rural development program, put some mandatory spending in there that wasn't there before.
BRASHERI want to add, on the other hand, and I think one of the concerns that's being raised a little, but not fully understood yet, is this shift to crop insurance which Scott brought up. And that is particularly significant because unlike with the normal crop subsidies, there are no limits on how much subsidized insurance someone can buy or how many acres they can cover. There is no means test. There are no conservation requirements. And something that is of great interest to Scott's group is that there is no public disclosure requirements for the recipients of crop insurance.
BRASHERAnd this bill creates a couple of policies, one for cotton and one for every other crop, that may be attractive to large-scale farmers who don't want to deal with the restrictions that are in the traditional commodity program. And I think one of the concerns that some people have is that it might encourage large farms to get bigger at the expense of smaller operations.
NNAMDIIs that a concern that the Environmental Working Group has, Scott?
FABERAbsolutely. There are two ways that this bill hurts the smaller farmers, organic farmers, sustainable farmers. One is that, as Phil said, we're making a huge shift into the crop insurance subsidies, have no limits so there's no limit on who can get subsidies. There's no means test as there has been for traditional subsidies. And again, there's no limit on the amount. So while there are payment caps of 50,000 or 65,000 on traditional subsidies, these crop insurance subsidies are completely unlimited.
FABERThe other problem is that we've also made deep cuts to programs to reward stewardship by, as Phil said, about a 10 percent across-the-board cut in particular to programs that help farmers make the transition to organic and reward them for good stewardship. There are some good things for small and organic farmers, as well. Phil mentioned a couple of them. And more funds to help link consumers with farmers to create those local markets. Just today an amendment passed to help make insurance programs work better for organic farmers. And really primarily because of the leadership of Senator Stabenow, Chairwoman Stabenow.
FABERThere is a really unprecedented investment in helping to create links between urban consumers and local farmers. And so there is some good to be celebrated here, as well.
NNAMDIWe gotta take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on what you should know about the farm bill, but you can still call us at 800-433-8850. Steven, thank you very much for your call. You can send email to Kojo@wamu.org. How do your food-shopping habits signal your preferences for farm policy? Is there a crop you think needs help from the farm bill? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing the Farm Bill which could end up costing almost a trillion dollars over the course of the next decade. We're talking with Scott Faber, vice-president of Government Affairs with the Environmental Working Group and Phillip Brasher, editor of CQ's Executive Briefing on Agriculture and Food Policy. I'm taking your calls at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIPhillip Brasher, Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul is proposing an amendment that would give control of the food stamp program to the states. What would that do and how likely is it to pass?
BRASHERThere's not a chance that it will pass. What is in here in terms of food stamps is going to stay. It was worked out in committee and the chairman, Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, has -- and her ranking Republican have been able to protect what they did in that bill. Another Republican, Jeff Sessions from Alabama yesterday tried to cut the program more than the bill did and wasn't able to get anywhere.
BRASHERAnd the provision -- the cut that's in there, the $4.5 billion dollars, primarily effects 14 states and the District of Columbia because of a way that they -- a method that they use to increase the benefits for many of the residents. And there was a change made in that (unintelligible) $4.5 billion and will have the effect, as Scott mentioned, of reducing benefits for the people that are affected. But I think you're going to see the bill come out pretty much as it is when it -- with regard to food stamps.
NNAMDIWell, we got this email from Joe who says, "I'm a supporter of the food stamp assistance program and know that it helps millions of needy people. However, I also know just from anecdotal evidence that the program is plagued with fraud and abuse. I can only imagine the millions or billions that get stolen by people who do not rightfully deserve food stamps or who sell $50 worth of their food stamps for $100 cash.
NNAMDIAre there any serious efforts underway to root out the fraud and abuse that's costing taxpayers millions and shortchanging deserving recipients? There seems to be a disagreement between some Republicans and Democrats about whether this bill needs to cut funding to combat fraud in the food stamp program or boost funding to help more families in these difficult economic times." First you, Phillip Brasher, how is this debate likely to play out?
BRASHERYeah, this has been something the Republicans and the House in particular, and to some extent here in the senate have been bringing up. A couple of things on that, and this is what is really driving a lot of this on the Republican side. The cost of this program has doubled since the president took office back in 2009. We were, of course, deep in recession. And the recession, of course, had a lot to do with the growth in that program. But it has increased significantly, costing around I believe $80 billion a year right now.
BRASHEROn the other hand, Republicans this year, over in the House, they brought in experts talking about this waste and fraud issue which USDA, by the way, is doing a number of -- is taking a number of steps on. And they really told them that there is a limited amount that they can do at this point in terms of where their fraud and error rate is. It's -- they're probably not going to be able to save that much more.
FABERAnd it's worth noting that not only has Senator Stabenow included some important reforms in the underlying bill, but the SNAP program -- the food stamp program has one of the lowest, if not the lowest error rates of any government program run in the country. So there's been extraordinary efforts made by USDA and by the states to reduce errors and payments. And what's troubling for many of us, whether we work for environmental groups, public health groups, anti-hunger groups is there's virtually no focus on fraud and waste and abuse in the subsidy programs.
FABERThe USDA has reported on a number of recent examples of farmers and insurance agents collaborating to make fraudulent claims that ultimately cost the taxpayers much more money. But there's been virtually no oversight by the house or the Senate Agriculture Committees of fraud in these subsidy programs. It makes you wonder why they're focusing on lottery winners who collect food stamps but not focusing on all the lottery winners who are continuing to collect farm subsidies, and there are plenty of them.
NNAMDIAnd, Scott, you've predicted that one of the most hotly debated amendments would be the one that would offer food stamp recipients a bonus to entice them to buy more fruits and vegetables. How would that work?
FABERWell, thanks to Senator Stabenow's leadership there's a new program in the bill that would provide about $100 million over the next five years to organizations -- local organizations to essentially sort of provide an additional incentive for folks -- for low income folks who are shopping at farmers' markets, but not exclusively at farmers' markets, who are shopping at farmers' markets, perhaps in supermarkets who buy fruits and vegetables. And essentially the way this would work is if you spend a dollar of your SNAP benefit to buy fruits and vegetables, these new dollars will help match that dollar so you can go out and buy even more fruits and vegetables.
FABERIt really tries to attack some of the challenges that we're facing. This isn't a challenge that's unique to poor people but the challenges we're facing in the American diet. Too few Americans are eating fruits and vegetables. There's a lot of reasons. Convenience is certainly a big factor, that sometimes it's easier to get a bag of chips out of the vending machine then to walk around the corner and buy an apple or a banana.
FABERBut food is complicated, eating behaviors are complicated. There are a lot of reasons that people don't get enough fruits and vegetables in their diet regardless of income. And so this new initiative will help provide a little incentive to increase fruits and vegetables.
NNAMDIHere is Jody in Reston, Va. Jody, did Scott Faber just answer your question or not?
JODYWell, he definitely touched on a part of it but if I could extend my question.
JODYAre there any educational provisions in this Farm Bill that'll help educate Americans at large about how to eat healthy, what really is healthy? Because there's a lot of evidence I feel coming out in recent years from the science experts that's contradictory to what we've been thinking for the last 30 years. And...
FABERIt's a great question, Jody. You know, there's some funding primarily targeted at low income Americans who are benefitting from the SNAP program, from the food stamp program. But generally, no, the government does not have a really coordinated effort to highlight the benefits of fruits and vegetables. Some of you -- hopefully all of you have heard about the new dietary guidelines and the My Plate Initiative, which obviously calls for all of us to cover half our plates with fruits and vegetables. But most of the marketing advertising promotion is really the First Lady's sweat equity and not your dollars helping to promote those decisions.
NNAMDIWell, Phil Brasher, this Farm Bill -- and Jody, thank you for your call -- this Farm Bill involves a huge amount of money, $960 billion, but you've said that the real power to change the country's food landscape lies with us, the consumers. How do shoppers' preferences affect what's grown and what's sold?
BRASHERWell, look, food companies -- farmers for that matter too -- they're in business to make a profit. So ultimately they care what their customers want. And when customers' -- consumers' tastes change, when they want more organic food, when they want more fruits and vegetables, when they want more locally produced fruits and vegetables and foods then you see and have seen supermarkets and restaurants change to meet that.
BRASHERThat's why you're seeing so much promotion of local foods in the produce section of your grocery store. And that's why you see more and more restaurants popping up here in the Washington area and many other areas promoting locally produced foods. It's because the consumers are demanding it. You know, the organic food segment of course has been growing significantly usually by double digits every year. It slowed somewhat during the recession but that's why it has been growing because of -- again, because of consumer preferences.
NNAMDIAllow me to interrupt you with a specific. I was just informed that the senate agriculture subcommittee just Tweeted quoting here, "Colburn amendments to limit payments for millionaires passed a 63 to 36." And that the -- we know that the senate agriculture subcommittee also passed the Merkley Amendment for organic crop insurance, also 63 to 36. Could you tell us what those two mean?
BRASHERSure. So the full senate just voted on those amendments and essentially what the first one does is it applies a means test of $999,000 for -- on subsidies of all kinds. Senator Colburn has been a great champion of applying a means test, just as we do for other programs like food stamps, to farmers so that farmers who are -- farm couples that are earning net farm income of more than a million dollars a year -- so quite a bit of money -- would no longer be eligible for subsidies. That’s a great victory.
BRASHERAnd then, as I mentioned earlier, Senator Merkley successfully persuaded the senate to amend how our insurance programs work so that we're no longer discriminating against organic farmers by charging them essentially a surcharge and then not paying them based on the market value of their produce, which obviously is a little bit higher than the market value of conventional produce.
NNAMDIRunning out of time, very quickly this final question for both of you. The Farm Bill is set to be the document that sets the country's food and agriculture policy for the next decade. But consumers are unlikely to notice the outcome of the debates over subsidies and amendments at the grocery store. Why not? First you, Scott Faber.
FABERYeah, you know, at the end of the day these subsidies, whether we increase them, reduce them, reform them, have very little impact on the price of food at retail with the exception to some extent of our dairy and sugar policies, which artificially increase the price of those products. But by and large if we increase subsidies -- if we got rid of subsidies you wouldn't see much change at the grocery store.
FABERWhere the Farm Bill will really touch consumers is in two ways. One is by, if you're a very poor consumer by reducing your amount of the benefit that you're receiving under the SNAP program. And secondly, and here Senator Stabenow has made some progress in increasing links between consumers and local farmers giving consumers more choices and to get healthier and local food in their diets.
NNAMDIWell, Phillip Brasher, I've got another question for you. It's my understanding that the Stabenow Amendment for additional assistance to producers of fruit crops are covered by National Disaster Declaration was agreed to by a voice vote. Could you explain what that is and why a voice vote?
BRASHERWell, a voice vote is -- they typically do voice votes where there's -- well, there're a couple of reasons. One, where there's really not any opposition and it really speeds up the process. Another reason to have a voice vote is where somebody doesn't want a recorded vote because they're going to lose and they don't want senators on record because once you've got senators on record as one way, you can't get them to go the other way.
BRASHERBut it was -- I believe it was a relatively non-controversial amendment, as a number of them are. And to speed up the process they go to -- they often do voice votes.
NNAMDIPhillip Brasher is editor of CQ's Executive Briefing on Agriculture and Food Policy. Phillip Brasher, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIScott Faber is vice-president of Government Affairs with the environmental working group. Scott, thank you for dropping in.
NNAMDIWe'll continue to follow how this Farm Bill progresses. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, how Josue Lajeunesse works two jobs in New Jersey to help provide clean water to his home village in Haiti. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.