Farm Bill Passes U.S. Senate

Farm Bill CartoonThe farm bill S. 3240, passed the U.S. Senate on June 21. The bill, which is renewed approximately every five years, dictates congressional spending on not only farm issues such as crop subsidies, but nutritional programs like food stamps and the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), and conservation programs. Total spending controlled by this one bill is in the billions of dollars each year. In 2010, farm bill spending amounted to $96.3 billion, according to the Environmental Working Group.

This year, Senators introduced more than 300 amendments to the farm bill. 73 amendments were approved for debate in the Senate starting on Tuesday afternoon. Of those considered and either approved or rejected, important amendments include:

"Consumers Right to Know About Genetically Engineered Food Act": Senator Bernie Sanders' (I-VT) amendment number 2310, the "Consumers Right to Know About Genetically Engineered Food Act," which would have allowed states to adopt labeling requirements for genetically engineered foods, was rejected. Sen. Sanders said of his amendment, "All over this country, people are becoming more conscious about the foods they are eating and the foods they are serving to their kids, and this is certainly true for genetically engineered foods. I believe that when a mother goes to the store and purchases food for her child, she has the right to know what she is feeding her child."

Crop Insurance for Organic Farmers: Senator Jeff Merkley's (D-OR) amendment number 2382, which addresses barriers to make crop insurance more accessible to organic farmers, was agreed to. Crop insurance protects farmers financially when crops are lost due to natural disasters (crop-yield insurance), or when the prices of commodity crops decline (crop-revenue insurance). The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently charges a five percent surcharge on crop insurance for organic farmers who participate in federal crop insurance programs. Organic crops are currently insured at the same amounts as conventional crops, despite often being worth as much as two times as much as a conventional crop in the marketplace. This means that organic farmers currently are not adequately compensated if they suffer a crop loss, relative to conventional farmers' compensation.

Crop Insurance for Conservationists: Senator Saxby Chambliss' (R-GA) amendment number 2438, which would link the receipt of federally subsidized crop insurance to basic conservation requirements, was agreed to.

Crop Insurance for Millionaires: Senator Tom Coburn's (R-OK) amendment number 2439, which would limit the amount of insurance subsidies going to the wealthiest farmers -- persons or corporations grossing more than $750,000 a year -- was agreed to, although this limitation wouldn't take effect until the completion of a study on the effects of the limitation.

Food for Struggling Families and School Children: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's (D-NY) amendment number 2156, which would have struck $4.5 billion in cuts to SNAP and invested $500 million over ten years in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP) providing fresh produce snacks to schoolchildren, was rejected. However, Senator Jeff Sessions' (R-AL) amendments, 2174 and 2172, which would have further cut SNAP funding as well as limiting eligibility, were also rejected.

Rural Development and Beginning Farmer Programs: Senator Sherrod Brown's (D-OH) amendment number 2445, which would fund rural development and beginning farmer programs, was agreed to.

Organic Certification Cost Sharing: Senator Pat Toomey's (R-PA) amendment number 2217, which would have eliminated the organic certification cost share program, was rejected. This program reimburses eligible farmers who want to certify their operations organic for a portion of the costs of that certification.

For more on the hundreds of amendments proposed to the Senate version of the farm bill, see Marjorie Roswell's collaborative and interactive charts at the Farm Bill Primer.

The House of Representatives will now mark up its own version of the farm bill. House Chairman Frank Lucas (R-OK), told Politico that he intends to start to amend the House version of the bill when lawmakers return after the July 4 recess.

Congress had the option to delay the writing and debating of the farm bill until 2013, but committee leadership announced in April its intent to expedite a farm bill in 2012 and send it to President Obama for his signature before the fall election. "My intention is to work with the Senate because that is something that can pass and the president can sign," House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson (D-MN), told the North American Agricultural Journalists on April 12.