Is the farm bill a welfare program for slackers or the last-ever chance to create a sustainable food model for the future? Listening to Republicans and Democrats, those seem to be the only two choices.

The $1 trillion-plus spending package that is the 2023 farm bill is set to become an unprecedented point of contention in Congress. The farm bill has traditionally been a bipartisan effort; however, lawmakers on the Republican bench are concerned over the implications of the bill for the debt ceiling.

The farm bill is a five-year legislative plan that governs much of America’s food production. It dictates everything from how food is made to who has access to it, including everything from farmer training to crop insurance and food research. Arguably, programs such as these are expensive because, evidently, so is agriculture. 

The United States is not alone in this aspect, given the fact that the European Union uses more than a third of its annual budget for farming and regional development. However, the largest factor for the sizable price tag is nutrition programs, covering a welfare aspect that has far less consensus in Congress: food stamps.

House Republicans believe that the farm bill should limit access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by changing work requirements for its beneficiaries. In plain English, this means: If you’re able-bodied and do not have children, food stamps will only be accessible if you’re over the age of 55, from the existing 49. 

While it is important to look at the sizable cost of SNAP payments in the farm bill, both Republicans and Democrats should strive for a more thorough vision of agriculture. The price of food stamp policies is also defined by the overall cost of food.

The other pricey section of the farm bill consists of subsidies for farmers through direct payments and insurance policies. It is true that the United States subsidizes agriculture to a lesser extent than its European counterparts, all while guaranteeing a more sustainable and efficient food sector. The U.S. also shines on free trade compared to EU policies, as it implements fewer tariffs, and subsidizes and exports less, making sure it faces fewer World Trade Organization challenges than other countries. That said, the U.S. has increased the reliance of farmers on income support through direct producer payments, as Department of Agriculture research outlines.

A question lawmakers should be asking is whether the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation even needs to continue being a federal government program when private insurance companies provide similar services. On top of that, it would be important for USDA to conduct an impact assessment on the cost implications for farmers of the chemical policies that the federal government implements.

In fact, regulatory restrictions on chemical crop protection products negatively affect how reliably farmers can supply our supermarkets. The Environmental Protection Agency silently pushes out synthetic pesticides and would rather have consumers purchase much pricier organic products. Now granted, if consumers wish to shop organic, that is their choice. However, we cannot expect the public to shift to products with price premiums of up to 100% just because the administration has decided that crop protection methods that have been deemed safe by other agencies now suddenly ought to be phased out. 

Many environmental groups are pushing for tighter regulations on pesticides because they long for what they assume were the good old days in which farms were small and tractors were car-sized. The reality they haven’t faced is that the world has moved on and that nobody wants to move back to the consumer purchasing power of the 1950s.

Regulation has a hidden price tag, and if the administration wants to have a serious discussion about the sustainability and viability of the farm sector, it needs to be transparent about all of these costs, not just try to score a flawed deal to avoid a government shutdown.

Farm subsidies are far from being an ironclad guarantee that food will be either available or affordable. For that to happen, we need to analyze the entire food chain and its regulations to determine whether or not our own fear of crop protection chemicals is actually the cause of many of our ills.

Originally published here



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