GOP Budget Cuts to Hurt Farmers and Consumers

The Republican-led House has proposed ill conceived cuts to the federal budget which will disincentivize farms from moving towards organic, raise prices for consumers, kill small and medium sized businesses, and increase the risk for food borne illness.

The House has already voted to cut more than $88 million from this year's meat inspection budget at the US Department of Agriculture, as well as cut $242 million from the US Food and Drug Administration's food programs.

The proposed budget puts the organic and sustainable agriculture industry squarely on the chopping block.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is one part of the USDA's budget which is likely to be cut. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program helps fund growers, ranchers and vineyard owners who are transitioning to organic.

Arianne Lotti, the Policy Director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation said, "The House-passed bill for agriculture targets small, important programs that serve primarily underserved sectors of agriculture and leaves funding for larger programs untouched." The current proposal seems to be targeting smaller farms, but leaving subsidies for large agri-business mostly untouched.

While the Natural Resources Conservation Service does provide much needed help to organic farmers, it may be an easy target because of accusations of abuse within the program. Rather than work to weed out alleged corruption, the Obama administration has highlighted these programs as easy targets to cut.

Tony Valvo, a whistleblower within the NRCS claimed that conservation payments were made to agribusiness without proper verification. Following his repeated requests to supervisors to investigate, he was placed on administrative leave.

Sticking with that defeatist spirit, Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack met with the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on March 1 in order to offer more details on the proposed Republican budget. He did not seem eager to defend his department, and mostly spoke in generalities.

Representative Rose DeLauro pushed Vilsack for specifics, "We can’t just hope for the best that will come out of this process. How many inspectors would have to be furloughed? How many chickens destroyed? What is in place to assure us we do not want another inspection failure?"

Vilsack did not respond to any specifics in her questions, but rather said that the USDA would need time to adjust to any cuts, and would need to prioritize its research budget.

In addition to putting a damper on the growth of organic farming, other proposed cuts will hurt business and possibly raise the cost of food.

In meat and poultry plants, government inspectors must, by law, be present at all times. House Democrats argue that cuts would require many of the 8,600 meat and poultry plant inspectors to take between 37 and 40 furlough days, leading to a loss of $11 billion in production over the next several months. As supply shrinks, the prices would rise for consumers. Most likely, these cuts would put smaller producers out of business first.

Following the spinach and peanut butter contamination catastrophes, Congress tasked the FDA with keeping a closer watch on food safety. Senate Democrats argue that the cuts to the FDA budget "would result in large-scale reductions of domestic and foreign inspections of food and drug manufacturers, including 2,000 fewer inspections of food and medical product firms, 10,000 fewer import inspections, and 6,000 fewer laboratory sample analyses of food and medical products. Essentially, the ability of the Agency to ensure that America has the safest supply of food and medical products in the world would be diminished."

Through defunding the FDA, they are not only hurting business in the midst of a tenuous recovery, but putting the health of American citizens at risk.

A sustainable food system requires safe, affordable food for consumers. While the current state of the American food industry leaves much to be desired, these cuts will further damage an already strained system.

Photo Credit: Johan Ohrling