Don’t split the Farm Bill and food assistance

By Susan A. Schneider, Director of  LL.M. Program in Agricultural & Food Law at Arkansas School of law and contributor to the Agricultural Law blog.

Several years ago, I wrote an article called, A Reconsideration of Agricultural Law:  A Call for the Law of Food, Farming, and Sustainability. This article examined the history of agriculture’s special treatment under our legal system and discussed “agricultural exceptionalism,” i.e., the many legal exceptions provided to the agricultural industry. I reviewed those exceptions and concluded that the need for food is the most rational basis for justifying agriculture as a unique enterprise. I wrote that “[f]ood, as the most basic of human needs, provides a compelling justification for a legal system that nurtures and guides its agricultural sector.”

Little did I know that just a short time later, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives would attempt to essentially split food and agriculture by stripping the food assistance programs from the Farm Bill. This effort marks a radical departure from past coalitions and goes in the exact opposite direction from that proposed in my article.

I argued that a “food-based agricultural law,” should not be driven “by protectionism or exceptionalism,” and that it should not be “focused solely on assuring the economic vitality of the agricultural industry.”  I called for a return to the spirit of “agrarianism” and for an agricultural system that reconciled the self interest of farmers with the public good of society—everyone in society.  I referred to this as the “new food-based agriculture.”

The new agricultural law should be a system of agricultural laws and policies that promote an agricultural sector that produces healthy food in a sustainable manner. This requires a balancing of the needs of farmers with the needs of consumers, all within the context of protecting both the social fabric of society and the environment.

A balanced system would be a sustainable system reflecting the triad of considerations: economic sustainability, environmental sustainability and social sustainability. Farmers should have the opportunity to make a profit farming; environmental damage should be minimized so as to allow regeneration and renewal; and society’s ethical and moral standards should be respected. This system would be based on the societal need for healthy food, not on efforts to protect any given segment of society or the preservation of vested interests. Under this system, farmers are supported, but not because they are farmers, but because of societal interests in the production of healthy food in a sustainable manner.

Efforts to pass a Farm Bill that continues current federal farm policy in largely the same form—rewarding the same commodity crops produced by the most financially successful farm operators—while denying food assistance to those who truly need it, is the wrong way to go.  I renew my call for a Farm Bill that is truly based on society’s need for healthy food. We need more connections between food and agricultural policies, not less.

Professor Susan A. Schneider teaches agricultural and food law courses at the University of Arkansas School of Law and serves as the Director of the unique advanced legal degree program, the LL.M. Program in Agricultural & Food Law. Schneider was raised on a family farm in Minnesota and has devoted her legal career to work in agricultural and food law. Her private practice experience includes agricultural law work with firms in Arkansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Washington, D.C. as well as service as a staff attorney at Farmer's Legal Action Group Inc. (FLAG). She now serves on the FLAG Board of Directors. She is a past president of the American Agricultural Law Association (AALA) and was the recipient of the 2011 AALA Distinguished Service award. She is a frequent speaker at agricultural and food law conferences. Professor Schneider is a significant contributor to the Agricultural Law blog. Her twitter account @aglawllm is followed by many interested in agricultural and food law issues.

Photo of kids eating berries in field by Michael Bentley.

One Response to “Don’t split the Farm Bill and food assistance”

  1. Fred Griffen

    For the most part I can heartily agree with Professor Schneider here while I could not support her thoughts in her previous article about the so-called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. As I stated in my response to that previous article, I definitely agree that as a society we need to provide “food assistance for those who truly need it.” It’s defining “those who truly need it” that I would like to see more clearly defined, i.e. the establishment of better (read “stricter”) criteria for screening the applicants for this assistance. I believe the current system has grown cumbersome to the point of dysfunctionality and allows too many who don’t “truly need it” to participate at significant and wasteful taxpayer expense. I would also like to see greater emphasis put on genuinely nutritious food, i.e. the elimination of soft drinks and such from the list of foods purchasable through this assistance. Thank you.


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