Food Week: A Farm Bill Striptease Reveals Climate Change Panties

Climate change may spur intense droughts. If a drought kills a farmer’s crop, a farmer insured with crop insurance will likely get a pay out. The following year, that same insurance policy may cost more. Both the farmer and the US government help pay for that insurance policy. Also, it means our grocery prices will likely skyrocket due to food shortages. It’s a fun domino effect. Photo courtesy of USDA.

This summer, the Farm Bill is toying with the idea of going on a diet of mostly crop insurance. Yum?

Since the 1970s, the American Farm Bill has routinely indulged in a two-course meal. The menu included agricultural subsidy starters—which includes crop insurance, followed by another plate of food stamps. But on July 11, House republicans concerned with reducing the federal budget took a knife to the food stamp program. To complicate matters, a day earlier, on July 10, the Senate passed a different version of the bill. So what will actually go into effect come is still unclear.

In recent years, the price tags of both the food stamp program—called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—and the crop insurance program have been steadily rising, although for different reasons. SNAP’s costs rose mainly because of increasing mouths to feed. Between 2000 and 2012, participants more than doubled from 17,194,000 to 44,609,000.  In 2000, total costs were $17.7 billion; by 2012, total costs were a whopping $78.4 billion.

Meanwhile, Federal Crop Insurance Corporation (FCIC) expenses also jumped during that time, largely because of damaging weather events (droughts, storms, hail). The crop insurance program works like this: Crop insurance policies are expensive. To get coverage, a farmer must pay an annual premium. Farmers and the government split the costs of those premiums.

In 2000, government-paid premium subsidies totaled $951 million and farmers paid approximately $1.6 billion out of pocket for the rest of the premium costs. In 2011, the government was shelling out around $7.4 billion for subsidy premiums and farmers were paying more too—$4.4 billion. Some record droughts happened in between.

Within the farming community, bad weather is abhorred, feared. But whether farmers will admit it or not, behind those individual storms or heat waves, a larger force is partially at play. Can you guess what it is? Climate change, of course!

It is a recognized truth among scientists that man-made carbon emissions are changing our planet’s climate patterns, although the exact specifics depend on where you live and are still being studied extensively. In North America, climate change already is and will continue to drive intense droughts in future years (among other things)—and that is not good for crops, and by association, you and me and our wallets.

Let me explain: Just last year, the Midwest saw a historic drought. Soy and corn crops took a real beating, which in turn impacted the amount of food available for cows, pigs, and chickens. Some animals died. Other ate candy. It was sad. According to the US Department of Agriculture, financial impacts on those withered crops and nutrient-deprived remaining farm animals rolled over into 2013, where food shortages drove up grocery prices.

So, returning to my original point, next time you hear about about the Farm Bill, know that hiding underneath the garments of political debt discussions, food stamps, and corn subsidies is a piece of legislation intimate (wink, wink) with #climatechange.

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