Why we shouldn’t forget the Farm Bill

by Aimee Witteman

Last Wednesday, Monsanto announced that the Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) approved a pilot program that will give farmers a 20 percent discount on insurance premiums if they plant a majority of their corn acres with seeds featuring Monsanto’s trademarked YieldGard Plus with Roundup Ready Corn 2 or YieldGard VT Triple stack technology. This is the first time the FCIC Board has approved a crop insurance discount for specific crop traits, but not likely the last.

For the moment, let’s set aside the potentially sordid nature of this public/private arrangement. What is particularly ironic and imbalanced is that organic producers pay an extra 5 percent surcharge when they sign up for crop insurance because of the perceived additional risks associated with organic production.

That’s right. Organic producers are actually penalized for using production practices that have been shown to lessen risks.

Simply put, this is bad policy that should be reformed when the Senate takes up the farm bill this month.

It’s tempting to want to forget about the behemoth that is federal farm policy and concentrate on local solutions to the food system crisis. There is no question that making change on a local, human scale is critical, not to mention more accessible and arguably more gratifying. We should not view advocacy as an either/or proposition, however. If we do not address federal policy, the scaffolding that shapes our decisions as producers and consumers, our efforts to make sweeping changes in the food system will likely amount to no more than a few heirloom tomatoes in a sea of GM corn.

Scott Marlow, Director of Farm Sustainability for RAFI-USA, explains how our current crop insurance policies affect producer behavior — behavior on which a large-scale food revolution hinges.

In May, Marlow testified before Congress about the impact crop insurance has on the ability of farmers to adjust to shifts in our agricultural economy. Currently, crop insurance for organic producers not only carries a 5 percent surcharge, it does not cover the added value of specialty marketed crops. Instead, the crop insurance payments are calculated based on the conventional price.

In other words, if you are an insured organic producer like the ones devastated by August floods in southwestern Wisconsin this summer, you will likely receive assistance based only on the conventional price for the crops you have lost.

Because the added value of specialty marketed crops is uninsured, it is frequently not included in either collateral valuation or anticipated income. As Marlow remarked in his testimony, “while lenders do not recognize the higher value of specialty crops, they do recognize the higher expense of producing them.”

Marlow says that the lack of risk management for value-added products and the reduction in access to credit and other disaster programs that accompanies it, creates a financial disincentive for farmers to make the transition to organic production, and increases the risk and vulnerability of those that do.

And there’s the farm bill rub.

Unfair, punitive crop insurance policies may not raise the eyebrows or pitchforks of smaller organic producers who are less likely to take out operating loans or are sheltered from risk by a growing a huge variety of crops. For mid-sized “agriculture of the middle” family farmers, however, it can be the deciding factor in choosing whether to transition relatively large amounts of land out of monoculture commodities and into diversified, specialized crops and livestock.

The upside of Congress’ slow progress in reauthorizing the current farm bill is that we still have a chance to steer this ship around. The farm bill is an opportunity to reform current inequities and support the kinds of farming that results in healthier people and landscapes. Contact members of the Senate Agriculture Committee today.

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