Why do we need a “Farm Bill”? Farmers make up only 1.3% of the total U.S. population and even less than 10% of the population of counties classified as rural or non-metro. Only about 40% of farmers, meaning about 0.5% of U.S. residents, receive government payments authorized by the Farm Bill. The vast majority of farm subsidies go to the largest 10% of farming operations.[i] Why do we even need the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)? Farms contributed $136.1 billion to the U.S. economy in 2019, but this was less than 1% of the total GDP. Agriculture, food, and ag-related industries combined contribute less than 6% to the GDP.[ii]We don’t have U.S. Cabinet-level agencies for other similar-sized sectors of the economy or society. What’s so special about farming?
The only defensible reason for a Farm Bill and the USDA is to ensure domestic food security. Like people in most nations of the world, Americans recognize that governments need to be involved to ensure that everyone has enough safe, nutritious food to support healthy, active lives. In fact, many other nations accept universal access to food as a basic human right. Well-regulated market economies can meet the food needs of those who can afford to buy enough wholesome, nutritious food to meet their needs. However, there have always been significant populations within all societies who are unable, through no fault of their own, to earn enough money to buy enough good food to meet their nutritional needs for a healthy, active life. The resulting hunger or malnutrition is what economists call a “market failure.”
Even though most market economies can meet the food needs of most of the people most of the time, they are inherently incapable of eliminating hunger and malnutrition for all the people and thus are incapable of providing food security. Domestic food security is the logically defensible reason for periodically asking U.S. taxpayers to support the comprehensive legislation known as Farm Bills to cover the government’s cost of operating the USDA. This is also the logical reason that government food assistance programs claim about 80% of the total USDA budget, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.
Some policy wonks have suggested that supplemental food assistance programs are only kept in the USDA for political reasons. Urban legislators with large food-insecure populations may be more inclined to support generous USDA budgets because they include funds for food assistance. Others have argued that nutritional assistance programs should be separated from the Farm Bill. This would allow the USDA to focus more clearly on agriculture and farming. Government food assistance could then be combined with other social welfare programs. A more logical argument could be made for creating a new U.S. Department of Domestic Food Security that would exclude current USDA programs that do not support domestic food security.
For example, USDA programs that promote international trade would fit more logically in the Department of Commerce. USDA’s ethanol and biodiesel programs would fit within the Department of Energy. Bioenergy programs actually compete with domestic food security. The Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, and Center for Disease Prevention and Control could logically regulate industrial agriculture as they regulate other industries—without the inevitable bias of sharing responsibilities with the USDA. This would allow remaining USDA programs to focus more clearly on its legitimate public mission of ensuring domestic food security.
Farm Bills in general have failed to ensure domestic food security, although some Farm Bills have been more effective than others. The initial Farm Bill of 1933 helped save the nation from famine by allowing family farmers to continue to produce food during times when market prices would have covered only a small fraction of their costs of production. The USDA Food Stamp program of the 1930s and early 1940s also helped many in urban areas buy enough food to fend off starvation. The revival of government food assistance programs of the 1960s and 1970s also helped to alleviate hunger and malnutrition, particularly in rural areas suffering from the demise of family farms brought on by agricultural industrialization.
Since the 1970s, Farm Bills have focused on increasing agricultural productivity rather than food security. As a result, more Americans are “food insecure” today than during the late 1960s.[iii] In 2019, before the COVID pandemic, 11%, one in nine, Americans were food insecure, and more than 13%, one in seven, households with children were classified as food insecure.[iv] By April 2020, credible estimates of food insecurity among households with children ranged as high as 40%.[v] Other projections indicated that, even with increased food assistance, childhood hunger would probably remain near 25% for 2020. In addition, whatever has been gained over the years by lower food costs has been more than offset by rising costs of health care. An epidemic of diet-related illnesses; obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and cancers, now threatens the physical and financial future of the nation.[vi]
The fact that past Farm Bills have failed doesn’t suggest that USDA’s basic mission of ensuring domestic food security should be abandoned. To the contrary. The fact that hunger is a market failure should be clearly explained to American taxpayers. USDA’s farm programs should then be redirected from promoting agricultural productivity through agricultural industrialization to ensuring domestic food security by supporting regenerative family farms.
A transition of farming from industrial agriculture to regenerative, resilient, resourceful family farms should be a priority for the 2023 Farm Bill. USDA’s farm programs should ensure that enough farmers willing to produce enough nutritious food to provide domestic food security, both now and in the future, have the economic means, including access to land, to fulfill the legitimate public mission of the USDA.
USDA’s rural development programs should be redirected from promoting industrial development to empowering people in local communities to create local food systems to eliminate local hunger. Most government food assistance programs today simply give people money to buy whatever they can afford from whatever source is accessible in their local communities. This leads to food deserts, obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases in addition to persistent, systemic hunger, particularly among children. Continuing to rely on markets for food security is a recipe for continued failure.
A transition from current government food assistance programs to programs that empower people to deal with hunger at their local communities should also be a priority in the 2023 Farm Bill agenda. Persistent hunger will be erased only when people assume personal responsibility to ensure that no one in their local communities, particularly children, goes to bed hungry. There are good logical reasons to have a Farm Bill and to fund it generously. We just need to make sure that future Farm Bills fulfill their public mission.
[i] For references, John Ikerd, (2020). THE ECONOMIC PAMPHLETEER: A Fair Deal for rural America. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 10(1), 5–8. https://doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2020.101.004 [ii] USDA, Economic Research Service, Agriculture and Food Related Sectors of the Economy, https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/ag-and-food-sectors-and-the-economy/#:~:text=Agriculture%2C%20food%2C%20and%20related%20industries,about%200.6%20percent%20of%20GDP. [iii] CBS Documentary, “Hunger In America,” 1968, Https://Www.Youtube.Com/Watch?V=H94bq4jfmaa. [iv] USDA, ERS, “Food Security in the U.S., Key Statistics,” Updated Tuesday, October 11, 2016, https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx#foodsecure . [v]Lauren Bauer, “The COVID-19 crisis has already left too many children hungry in America” UP FRONT, Brookings, Wednesday, May 6, 2020 https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/05/06/the-covid-19-crisis-has-already-left-too-many-children-hungry-in-america/ . [vi] John Commins, “Healthcare Spending At 20% Of Gdp? That's An Economy-Wide Problem,” Health Leaders, September 19, 2018. https://www.healthleadersmedia.com/finance/healthcare-spending-20-gdp-thats-economy-wide-problem .