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Business as usual: $956B Farm Bill is "impossibly complex and unreadable" says economist

Daily Ticker

If agricultural economist Daniel Sumner had his way, the latest farm bill would be the very last because it would end farm subsidy programs. But instead the bill is  "business as usual," he says, because it maintains farm subsidies and uses the bulk of its funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Porgram (SNAP), better known as Food Stamps.

Related: Food Stamp Cuts: Families Will Face Tough Choices, Says Marion Nestle

"Some of the farm bill programs should continue, but there is no reason to have this sort of law that is impossibly complex and unreadable," says Sumner, who directs the UC Agricultural Issues Center at UC Davis.

Indeed, the $956 billion bill is 959 pages long--representing almost $1 billion a page. It passed the House earlier this week and is making its way to the Senate. The bill budgets $16.5 billion less than what would have been spent under current law, with the Food Stamp program absorbing almost half those cuts but still accounting  for about 80% of the spending.

Related: Farm Bill Is Like Welfare for the Wealthy: Mark Bittman

Funding for food stamps is cut about 1%, which may not seem like much but  translates into about $90 less per month for about 850,000 low-income households.

The bill also makes some policy changes for famers, cutting $41 billion in direct payments but restoring about two-thirds of that with enhanced crop insurance. 

"Farm prices and farm revenues and net profits had been at record high so old-style farm prices that put the floor under prices were no longer effective," says Sumner. ""So they racheted up the guarantees, converted into a kind of revenue insurance, allowing the money to continue to flow." The bill also requires farmers to plant certain crops in order to qualify for insurance-style subsidies, says Sumner.

Related: Food Labeling Laws: It’s a Matter of ‘When’ Not ‘If’

Like most bills in Washington, the farm bill--the first one in two years--is a product of lobbyists. Bloomberg reported that at least 350 companies and organizations obbied legislators on the bill, including Monsanto (MON), PepsiCo (PEP) and Dean Foods (DF).

"There's no question there were benefits for corporations," says Sumner. "They all had a piece of the action, not so much in the dollars but in the way the regulations would be set." Environmental groups and organizations representing food pantries also lobbied on the bill. "Everybody has a piece of this one," says Sumner. Except, perhaps taxpayers.

"It's hard to find anything for taxpayers and consumers in a bill like this one." says Sumner.

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