Harvesting corn in southwestern Michigan (Loren King/Unsplash)

The Farm Bill doesn’t usually get as much press as some other congressional actions. Something like raising the debt ceiling or nominating a Speaker of the House draws attention to the too-good-to-miss partisan fights in which one side must vanquish the other. But every five years, the Farm Bill, which determines national food and agricultural policy, is usually passed with bipartisan support. The bill brings the two parties together to fund major programs: SNAP benefits (supported by Democrats) and subsidy payments for commodity-crop farmers (supported by Republicans). It also provides funds for crop insurance and conservation efforts. The two parties usually combine these various programs in one bill without much argument.

But the process of passing the 2023 Farm Bill has been unusually contentious. A group of far-right Republicans have broken with the status quo, insisting that the bill’s price tag—expected to exceed $1 trillion for the first time—is too high. They are targeting both Democratic and Republican priorities: they want cuts to SNAP benefits and new restrictions on eligibility as well as reduced funding for agricultural subsidies. Subsidy payments are popular in right-leaning congressional districts: individual farmers who grow commodity crops—corn, soybeans, wheat, and cotton—are paid by the government when the commodity price drops below a certain threshold. Begun as part of a New Deal program to help farmers suffering in the Depression and to maintain the national food supply, the commodity subsidies encourage farmers to keep planting even when they can’t make a profit.

In response to these demands from right-wing Republicans, Democrats sent a letter to Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, insisting that SNAP benefits not be cut. Many moderate Republicans, including House Agriculture Chairman Glenn “GT” Thompson, are urging their colleagues to support the bill with SNAP benefits fully intact. They know that not passing the Farm Bill—or passing it too late—would be extremely unpopular among their constituents, who depend on subsidy payments. The bill almost certainly won’t be passed by September 30, when the previous Farm Bill expires. If it isn’t passed before the end of the year, the majority of the programs it would fund will expire.

SNAP is indeed expensive, comprising 80 percent of the Farm Bill’s cost. But the program feeds 42 million people—12 percent of the country and a quarter of American children. Low-income families, the elderly, and the disabled all depend on it. One of the goals of the far-right Republican cohort is to roll back a recent benefit increase. As a nutrition program, SNAP benefits are determined in part by the Department of Agriculture; the USDA calculates the average cost of a nutritious meal for a family of four, and this information is used to set benefit amounts. Until 2021, this calculation had only adjusted for inflation the grocery prices from 1975, when the calculation was first made. It didn’t take into account the rising cost of groceries or various dietary needs. Before the 2021 adjustment, the maximum SNAP benefit did not cover the “average cost of a modestly priced meal in 96 percent of U.S. counties,” according to an Urban Institute study. Far-right Republicans are threatening not to support the bill unless this very modest increase—between $12 and $16 per person per month—is scrapped.


The winners in this arrangement aren’t farmers or SNAP recipients but the huge companies that control the American food system.

It would be fair to ask why SNAP and agricultural subsidies are funded by a single bill. Writing for the American Prospect, Luke Goldstein argues that the winners in this arrangement aren’t farmers or SNAP recipients but the huge companies that control the American food system. “The real function of the modern farm bill is to deliver windfalls to industry by subsidizing cheap commodity grains…that sell below the cost of production to agribusiness, fast-food chains, and global exports,” Goldstein writes. The farmers who grow the commodity crops are subsidized just enough to continue producing, but most of their product doesn’t go to feeding people directly. Instead, it goes to companies that use cheap crops to make major profits. Some of it feeds animals, mostly at CAFOs—concentrated animal feeding operations—which are owned by a small number of extremely powerful companies. Some goes to oil companies, which use it in the production of corn ethanol. Much of it ends up in inexpensive, unhealthy food produced by dominant food companies and fast-food restaurants. Commodity farming is further incentivized because only commodity farmers, rather than vegetable or fruit farmers, have access to the subsidies. Goldstein concludes, “This economic arrangement, which many of today’s farmers call a new form of serfdom, not only devastates farmers but incentivizes a food system that is causing rising obesity rates, limited access to fresh foods in inner-city areas, and nearly one-third of greenhouse gas emissions globally.”

When crop subsidies began in the New Deal era, large agricultural companies were opposed to the payments, which stabilized the fortunes of small-scale farmers and reduced their demand for fertilizer. But the reauthorization of the Farm Bill every five years was an opportunity for agribusiness to monopolize the industry. Beginning in the 1970s, just as antitrust laws were being reinterpreted in favor of lower prices for consumers, lawmakers began to prioritize large, single-crop farms over small, diversified family farms as the way to structure the food system. Richard Nixon’s secretary of agriculture Earl Butz insisted that farmers would have to “go big or get out.” And get out they did: over 2 million farmers left the industry between 1950 and 1990.

Food aid was added to the Farm Bill in 1964, when the representatives of Southern cotton farmers needed broader support to pass a bill favorable to them but disliked by others. Food aid—what we now know as SNAP—has been a vital part of helping the Farm Bill pass ever since. Support for SNAP has helped sneak destructive policies into the bill that have facilitated the transfer of wealth and land from farmers to corporations in the agricultural, food, oil, and chemical industries.

“Both by design and corporate hijacking, government policies have turned our farmlands into a paradise for big business and a wasteland for the rest of us,” argues Rebecca Wolf of Food & Water Watch. Rural communities have been torn apart by the suffering of farmers, who have experienced rising rates of debt, bankruptcy, and suicide. As these communities have been impoverished, regional rural economies that depend on agriculture have been endangered. And we are all weakened by a food system that creates less nutritious food, fails to remunerate the people who grow and harvest it, and pollutes our air and water.


This status quo, which has been acceptable to both political parties, will be hard to break, especially because Big Ag spends more than the defense industry on lobbying. The far-right Republicans holding up the 2023 Farm Bill are not going to be the ones to fix the problem; their vengeful calls to cut both SNAP and farm subsidies do not amount to a serious vision for what U.S. farm policy should look like.

A movement of farmers, activists, and policy advocates are now taking on the extraordinary challenge of refashioning the U.S. food system, and an unlikely alliance between Democratic senator Cory Booker and Republican senator Chuck Grassley has given voice to their priorities. Grassley has been a consistent critic of the consolidation of agriculture, particularly the meatpacking industry, often against the orthodoxy of his party. Booker has also been opposed to monopoly power and has fought against animal abuse at CAFOs. The two senators are advocating for an open market for independent farmers and a rule that would require meatpackers to purchase half of their animals on the open market. Grassley has introduced a bill that would put a limit on subsidy payments to huge, mostly corporate-owned farms, which would help redirect government assistance to the smaller farmers who need it most. Booker is also trying to prevent tax money from being used by agricultural lobbyists for advertising (e.g., the “Got Milk?” campaign).

A number of proposed “marker bills”—smaller pieces of legislation attached to the larger Farm Bill—show that other legislators are paying attention to agriculture. These would increase land access for young farmers, help small diversified farms access crop insurance, and fund research into environmentally friendly farming practices. Many of these proposals have bipartisan support.

Patty Lovera, policy director for the Organic Farmers Association, told Goldstein, “We [anti-monopolists] used to be greeted on the Hill like we were wearing tinfoil hats for saying we had a consolidation problem, and now everyone is like, ‘of course we do.’” It will be hard to overcome the inertia of decades-old policies and the influence of powerful interest groups. But the belief that corporate agriculture can keep Americans fed and healthy is at the end of its season.

Regina Munch is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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Published in the October 2023 issue: View Contents
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