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DC Update, May 15, 2008

The Farm, Nutrition and Bioenergy Bill is sent to the President for his veto.

Ignoring a veto threat from President Bush, the House passed the Farm Bill Conference Report on May 14th by a vote 318 to 106. On May 15, the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 81 to 15. President Bush has threatened a veto. If he does so, the bill will return to the House and Senate for a vote to override the veto which is expected to happen by May 20th. Both bodies will need to secure the votes of at least 2/3rd of their members in order to override the veto (290 for the House and 67 for the Senate). Given the strong final passage votes, it appears likely that Congress will have the necessary votes to override the veto. Without another extension, the current Farm Bill expires on May 16th

This Farm Bill includes many improvements in programs for the organic community thanks to the work of the National Organic Coalition, Sustainable Agricultural Coalition, Organic Trade Association and many other groups.

For more information on the provisions included in the Farm Bill that affect organic and sustainable agriculture, please go to:

The National Organic Coalition: http://www.nationalorganiccoalition.org/
The Sustainable Agricultural Coalition: http://www.msawg.org/

Highlights

The bill includes a $10.3 billion increase in spending on nutrition programs, including food stamps, that supporters called “historic,” as well as increases for rural development and land conservation programs. It also extends many existing federal subsidies that the president and other critics say are difficult to justify in such flush times for agriculture producers. President Bush had sought an adjusted gross income limit of $200,000 above which farmers could not qualify for any subsidy payments. The bill passed by the House, however, allows farm income of up to $750,000 and nonfarm income of $500,000 per individual.

That $750,000 limit applies to only one subsidy program, so-called direct payments that are disbursed based on land acreage and regardless of current market conditions or even whether the land is still actively farmed. While Mr. Bush has long called for curtailing subsidy programs, the farm bill is viewed as vital legislation both across rural America and in impoverished urban centers.
Some critics have also pointed to earmarks in the bill, including a tax break for racehorse owners added by the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and $170 million to benefit the salmon industry inserted by House Democrats from the West Coast.

Is this the last Farm Bill?

Of the $288 billion this food assistance bill will cost, fully 75% goes to nutrition programs. Only 16% goes to farm programs. This may have simply been a way for the Democrats to make sure the increasingly urban Congress voted with a veto-proof majority but the motivation may be more complex to do with the broadening chasm between urban and rural interests in the U.S. In five years, when we return to this legislation, we'll be fighting over who can shove more money into "nutrition" programs, as in food stamps, food assistance and food give-away programs, along with how much really good farm land can we take out of production in the name of environmental stewardship, while racking up more dollars to see if we can turn just about anything on-farm into fuel of some sort.  With a loss of focus on the importance of rural America and a loss of independent producers through misdirected programs there will be a possibility that Congress will be reluctant to tackle tough problems as they turn their back on farmers who feed us.  Perhaps Congress should remember where the food comes from that is purchased by food stamps and food banks.