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A Guide to the 2012 Farm Bill (and What it Means to You)

Kristen Demaline

Where is the Farm Bill in the overall legislative process?

The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012, also known as the Farm Bill, has been passed out of the Senate Agriculture Committee and is currently being worked on in subcommittees of the House of Representatives. It will come to the Senate floor for a full vote of all members, after which it must be reconciled with the House version.

What is the Farm Bill?

  • Perhaps more aptly named the Food Bill, it’s the biggest farm policy tool in the U.S., but this really concerns all food. Almost everywhere.

  • Every five years, Congress must approve the bill so that it can fund programs concerning farmers, crop production, rural development, energy conservation and international food aid. The Congressional Budget Office analyzed the Senate’s proposed bill and projects it will cost some $969 billion during the 2013-2022 period, which includes some $23.6 billion in cuts.

  • The largest section of the nutrition title (title = chapter in legislative-ese)—70 percent of all Farm Bill funding—goes to the food stamp program, now formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP is 100 percent federally funded, but benefits are administered by each state.

Who’s Rocking C-SPAN?

Senate Agriculture Committee: Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), chair; Pat Roberts (R-KS), ranking member

House Agriculture Committee: Frank Lucas (R-OK), chair; Collin Peterson (D-MN), ranking member

Debbie Stabenow is being praised by industry while coming under fire by observers since much of the committee’s business has taken place behind closed doors. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) voted “no” on the Bill in committee, citing opposition to SNAP cuts; four Southern senators joined in, pushing back on other provisions they claim disproportionally affect rice and peanut farmers.

In the House, the Farm Bill continues to be assembled via various subcommittees.

What’s Up This Year? The Political Landscape

The House Agriculture committee has proposed $33 billion in SNAP cuts. Combined with a House Budget Committee proposal to cut SNAP funding by $133 billion over the next decade and convert it to a block grant, resulting cuts would affect every SNAP recipient. (This is modeled on 1996’s welfare reform enacted during President Clinton’s administration. SNAP would no longer be funded to pay whoever is financially eligible; one capped block of money would have to fund all recipients.) 280,000 children would lose free school lunches as their eligibility is tied to SNAP status.

Is this necessary? That depends on your political priorities.

Right now, the House has genuine difficulty in passing legislation or doing business. (Though like all politicians, they seem to get to talk shows and fundraisers just fine.) Members of the Democratic and Republican parties are so firmly entrenched in opposing ideological and political positions that reaching compromise is difficult. Budgets and “austerity” politics rule the day right now. The Farm Bill will be no exception. About a week ago, Rep. Lucas said that “There is a high probability one way or another that we’ll see an extension of the 2008 Farm Bill.” You see, if Congress can’t pass a new one, they could simply extend the old bill, but many programs are scheduled to expire at the end of 2012 unless they’re properly rolled into a new bill.

Rep. Lucas also predicted a “wild ride.”

Food Stamps are in the Farm Bill?

Well, yes. It’s a long story. SNAP is credited with reducing the poverty rate by nearly 8 percent in 2009, the most recent year included in a new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) study. Sadly, you probably know at least one or two people who lost their job during the recession; 20 percent of those unemployed for more than six months during fiscal year 2011 received SNAP benefits. Overall, SNAP achieved a 4.4 percent decline in poverty from 2000-09. In 2011, the program served 44.7 million—or one in seven—Americans. Children, seniors and those with disabilities are the majority of those receiving SNAP benefits. According to testimony by Brookings Institution analyst Ron Haskins during House subcommittee hearings, “the average income (not counting the SNAP benefit) of families receiving SNAP is less than $9,000 per year.

Why Should I Care About This?

Those extra-value meals don’t pay for themselves. We know y’all want everyone to be able eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, so why can’t we make them more affordable? The Farm Bill will continue to profoundly impact the nation’s diet (and therefore public health), the quality of the environment and the efficacy of our efforts to address food insecurity.

Some of the specific government programs serving policy goals proposed by the Senate include:

  • Nutrition assistance In the Senate bill, cuts to “heat and eat” programs would result in reduced SNAP benefits. (Funds to help low-income Americans with utility bills could count as additional income.) For some, this could result in making a choice: to pay for food or heat?

  • Subsidies encourage farmers to grow some crops (especially corn, soy, rice and cotton) more than others (especially “specialty crops” like vegetables), or in certain amounts, in certain places. Remember, industrial livestock production depends on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) which in turn depend on cheap feed. Such as corn and soy. Lots of corn also becomes lots of high fructose corn syrup.

  • Conservation programs protect land held in trust by the government and help farmers install environmentally friendly applications like drip irrigation. Also, by protecting lands from soil erosion, we safeguard fertile land so that it can still be farmed.

  • International food aid partly refers to food aid commodities (rice, soy, wheat, corn etc.) but also funds technical assistance lent to farmers around the world.

  • Research and development, which funds work at land-grant universities (such as Texas A&M or the University of California system) and labs. Government funding enables independent research. Agribusiness prefers research that produces favorable results and affirms its own awesomeness, so Monsanto and their ilk are happy to step in if the Farm Bill doesn’t. As a researcher, if all you’re directed or have funding to study is one Big Ag firm’s seeds, all you can responsibly study are those seeds.

Who Else Cares About This?

Between industrial food—from growers to distributors—and activists in the sustainable food movement, there is involvement along the entire political spectrum. Involvement = lobbying for those who can afford it (how ya doin Big Ag?). That said, it’s important to bear in mind that “good food” advocates are also focused on education and are not as well-funded or cohesive as are industry lobbyists.

Since a SNAP fight features so prominently this time, anti-poverty and hunger organizations (some of which are tied closely to industrial food), a range of activists and think tanks that work on public policy, poverty and food security issues are also big players.

To see some takes on the big issues this time around, visit:

From good food advocates:

From an industry (and government) perspective, see:

For SNAP and budget-reduction perspectives, see:

Other Big Farming Issues

Crop Insurance and Commodities Eliminating direct payments to farmers, the new Farm Bill creates a replacement program, crop insurance, for farmers: Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC). The Senate markup on the Commodities title incentivizes farmers to only grow crops supported by the new ARC program.

ARC payments will take place only when revenues fall below a moving market average.

In English: No more automatic payments. Payments are capped, but if married, you can receive twice the single rate. That’s a carryover from the old law. Growing peanuts also earns twice the usual rate. This is an example of the political compromises you’ll be seeing more of in the coming months, as the old payment system is favored by peanut and rice farmers in the South more than their Midwestern counterparts. According to IATP, the recent uptick in commodity prices is driving farm commodity program reforms (for crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton).

Conservation: In a word, this title is “streamlining.” This is another set of programs being substantively cut—by 10 percent—and policies trimmed back in terms of reach. Further, the title continues to favor larger-acre operations, which by default tend to be in the West.

What Might Have Been: The Pingree/Brown Bill

Introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), the Local Farms, Food and Jobs bill incorporated measures to tackle food hubs, provide funds to schools so that they could buy more local food rather than solely subsidizing purchases via USDA commodity programs, and create block grants to fund specialty crops (organic and/or diversified operations). Some elements were woven into the Senate version (of course, the House version is still pending). Local Foods? Sustainability? Not much here. $20 million was written into the Senate bill to promote local food with an additional $20 million to improve SNAP access at farmers’ markets ($40 million, if you hadn’t guessed, is barely a drop in the Farm Bill bucket.) Assuming there are reductions in SNAP benefits, this may have less impact than we’d hope in the effort to make fresh, local food more affordable and accessible.

What’s Next?

It looks like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will introduce the bill on the Senate floor during the first week of June. Chairwoman Stabenow would not ask him to do so unless she knew she had sufficient votes to pass the Senate version, so we may not see much action on the floor when that happens.

We’ll be following this bill along its merry way over the next few months, and will report back when we know more about what the respective houses of Congress are up to.

Visit EcoWatch's FARM BILL page for more related news on this topic.

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The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

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Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

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"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.