The Farm Bill: A Caricature of Contradiction
By Ashley Pinkerton,
August 3, 2012
As the 2012 Farm Bill—the set of policies and laws passed roughly every five years that govern U.S. agriculture—is being debated in Congress, millions of farmers and farmworkers await September 30th, the day their fate will be decided by a mere 218 votes. The immense scale and scope of the Farm Bill means that it affects not just farmers and food workers. The Farm Bill covers everything from SNAP (the nation’s food stamp program), to global trade, to organic agriculture. Though only U.S. legislators can vote on it, this is a farm and food bill for the entire world; if you eat food, you’re affected. And if you work anywhere in the food system—from farm to fork—you’re also affected, and not always positively.
Just about everyone in the U.S. owes the food that they eat to the strenuous labor of immigrant and migrant workers from primarily Mexico and other Latin American countries. From packaged meats to handpicked strawberries, whether found at your local farmers’ market or the nearest Walmart, we count on farm and food workers to bring us our food. Of the 3 million farmworkers in the U.S., 80 percent are foreign born with the majority having been born in Mexico. There are 20 million food workers making up one sixth of the nation’s workforce, and an estimated 10 million of them are food insecure. Nonetheless—except as poor consumers in need of food assistance—you will not find farmworkers or food workers mentioned in the Farm Bill.
How the Farm Bill and free trade policies create cheap labor
Immigration from Mexico and Latin America to the U.S. is closely tied to the Farm Bill and to free trade policies championed by the World Trade Organization (WTO), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. In 1992, World Bank and IMF loan conditions required the reformation of Mexican agriculture, prompting the Salinas government to privatize ejido land, the backbone of the smallholder farm sector. Six years after the inception of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, the Mexican government had decreased its agricultural investment by 90 percent in order to allow for the cheap import of corn and beans from the U.S. and Canada. The 1996 Farm Bill, meant to comply with WTO rules and bolster agricultural trade, eliminated production and price controls (though not subsidies) making it possible for U.S. farmers to produce as much as they could. This led to the massive overproduction of subsidized cheap grain and agricultural “dumping” (the selling of goods at a price below the cost of production), which eventually led to the collapse of prices worldwide. The 2002 Farm Bill increased the number of subsidies when market prices dropped, protecting U.S. agribusiness while further encumbering small farmers in Mexico. From these policies, ensuing rural unemployment in Mexico additionally strengthened agribusiness in the U.S. as a surplus of cheap labor crossed the northern border. The negative impact that Farm Bill and free trade policies had (and continue to have) on Mexican farmers and peasants set the stage for the rapid increase of Mexican workers in the U.S. Unauthorized immigration from Mexico to the U.S. increased from 1.5 million in 2000 to 6.2 million by 2005.
How farm laborers are denied basic rights
Historically the Farm Bill has had a major, if indirect, impact on farm labor. However, a ‘labor’ title has always been conspicuously absent from the Farm Bill. Farm labor is not only non-existent under the bill; it is also excluded from major federal labor legislation. In the wake of the Great Depression, when the Farm Bill was created, farm workers did not have a voice strong enough to be heard amid the many other sectors that were protesting unfair wages and working conditions. The passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) that guarantees the right to collectively bargain, form labor unions, and go on strike and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that guarantees minimum hours and wages intentionally excluded agricultural labor to appease powerful U.S. growers. During WWII, the Bracero Program filled the agricultural labor gap with seasonally contracted workers from Mexico. The program was continued for a number of years after WWII because U.S. growers preferred cheap, foreign laborers who would cross picket lines and break-up strikes. Thus began the exploitative relationship between U.S. agribusiness and Mexican workers. Agricultural workers are the only remaining group that is denied the basic labor rights stipulated by the federal government.
Who benefits and how
The Farm Bill decides who will benefit from government funding in support of agriculture. In years past, the clear beneficiaries have been agribusinesses such as Cargill and Archer-Daniels Midland and seed and pesticide corporations such as Monsanto. Agribusinesses, already heavily subsidized through Farm Bill policies, see even higher returns on low-priced commodities because they employ immigrant workers who are non-unionized and underpaid. Pesticide companies win big because of the high number of chemical inputs required by massive scale, monoculture production. Immigrant farm workers usually perform the application of these toxic chemicals and often suffer from related health issues. Agribusinesses are so reliant on this that without it they would crumble, along with the current structure of the food system.
Who loses and how
Approximately half of all immigrant farm workers receive less than minimum wage and are employed only seasonally, with the majority uninsured. Working conditions are often extreme: no breaks or access to potable water, and exposure to sun and chemicals make farm labor high-risk. Many have fled economic hardship in their home country to support their families back home. The total number of remittances sent to Latin American families from their working relatives in the U.S. outnumbers Latin America’s foreign aid, government and private borrowing, and portfolio investment combined.
Immigrant workers are not the only ones negatively affected by the Farm Bill. Small farmers in the U.S. have been similarly hard hit by agricultural and free trade policies. However, the Farm Bill offers little support for either small farmers or workers that suffer from low wages, underemployment, and poor benefits. In fact, while a majority of Farm Bill money ($63.9 billion or about 75%) is allocated for the U.S. nutritional assistance program (SNAP), out of the other fourteen titles of the Farm Bill, title XIV, called “Miscellaneous” allocates a mere 0.59 percent for areas such as socially disadvantaged farmers and agricultural laborers.
The deceptive debate
So, what would a just Farm Bill look like? The debate on this subject is lively; however, the topic of labor rights is noticeably missing from these discussions, as is the issue of immigration.
The failure to discuss these issues is no accident. Despite the breadth of the Farm Bill, legislators skillfully maneuver to rally the masses around a single issue in order to conceal other shortcomings of the bill. Ever wonder why SNAP—the program receiving the lion’s share of Farm Bill monies—is even included in the Farm Bill? The food stamp program, while essential for feeding the country’s 49 million food insecure people, serves as a massive subsidy to agribusiness and agrifood monopolies like Walmart. When attention is brought to an issue that affects millions of U.S. citizens receiving federal assistance, topics such as agricultural labor that only receive an infinitesimal portion of Farm Bill money are easily obscured. The sheer breadth of the Farm Bill, and its uneven composition, are used as tools by legislators to conceal the many contradictions surrounding the bill.
The new Farm Bill comes at a time of economic hardship, global food and financial crises, and an unprecedented U.S. national deficit. The version of the bill that the Senate recently passed leaves much to be desired and the conservative-leaning House is currently seeking even more drastic cuts. This Farm Bill could be one of the worst in history: amendments for sustainable agriculture, protection of small farmers, and safety standards are all on the chopping block. The concessions made in this Farm Bill will have a profound effect on food workers in the U.S. and across the globe. Despite its food assistance provisions, until our Farm Bill protects our food workers and small farmers more than it protects the interests of the agrifood monopolies, it will continue to subsidize an inequitable and dysfunctional global food system.