Voters expect a sustainable farm bill for all

Voters expect a sustainable farm bill for all
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 The farm bill is up for reauthorization in Congress, yet only 20 percent of registered voters in America report being familiar with it. With a name like the "farm bill," voters may believe the bill has very little to do with their daily lives and instead exclusively focuses on the livelihood of rural farmers.

In reality, the farm bill is comprehensive legislation that dictates many of the regulations, programs, and government spending that shape our food system — from the farmers’ livelihoods to the cost of organic produce to basic needs programs for low-income Americans.

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Unfortunately, after 113 hearings and over 17 hours of testimony many of the views put into policy proposals in the House version of the bill do not line up with the view of the majority of voters specifically around the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), our nation’s largest anti-hunger program which accounts for the majority of farm bill spending.

 

According to a recent survey 60 percent of voters — 87 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independents — believe that government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people.  

In contrast, the Center on Budget and Public Priorities found the House farm bill proposes cutting SNAP by 20 billion over next 10 years. A significant majority (71 percent) of American voters believe the government is doing a poor or fair job of ensuring people with low or modest income have enough money for basic necessities, but the cuts to SNAP target some of the most vulnerable Americans by proposing harsh work requirements on families with children and on older workers. While a majority of voters do support work requirements (67 percent), that already exist, the proposals by the House Committee on Agriculture fly in the face of the 61  percent who oppose SNAP cuts.

In addition to support for this crucial safety net program, voters also clearly expressed support for sustainable agriculture, particularly opposing funding for concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs), which are primarily comprised of large industrial farms, and opposition to proposals to eliminate conservation programs. Instead, the majority of voters indicate support for policies that increase production of healthy vegetables, particularly grown by small or mid-sized producers. 

Two-thirds of Democrats (66 percent) and a clear majority of independents (57 percent) indicated they believe there is a greater need for oversight of industrial animal farms with a plurality, 49 percent, opposing funding for new or expanding CAFOs. A resounding 85 percent responded in support or strongly in support of increasing opportunities for beginning, socially disadvantaged, and veteran farmers and ranchers to participate in crop insurance and conservation programs.

It would seem, then, that American voters reject the fencerow to fencerow, intensive agriculture of the past with an eye toward a more sustainable food system.

Clearly, there is an important and urgent need to communicate agriculture and food policy in the United States. Despite the lack of knowledge of the farm bill, the other truth is that a majority of voters want a cleaner, healthier, and more equitable food system.  

In weighing the two proposals put forth by Congress, the House version of the farm bill deviates from what Americans want to see in food and agricultural policy. While far from perfectly aligning with those views, the Senate version of the farm bill, which passed with a powerful, bipartisan 86 to 11 vote, comes closest to matching the opinions of registered voters while maintaining or expanding programs that support our farmers, expand sustainable agricultural practices, and assists struggling Americans. 

Now in conference committee, legislators have a choice. The voice of the American voter is clear. Food is an important issue and, in particular, Americans resoundingly want the government to ensure their friends, family, and neighbors are able to afford food even in times of economic strife. SNAP is one strategy that the majority of Americans believe accomplishes this goal. Politicians, advocates, and other decision makers would be wise to listen.            

Bob Martin is the director of Food System Policy for the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.