Interview with Jim Kleinschmit

Last month, we received a visit from Jim Kleinschmit, Rural Communities Program Director at the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy, USA. We took the opportunity to ask him about his work, his organisation and the links between the US Farm Bill and Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy…

Jim Kleinschmidt, IATP

1. Can you tell us how you came to be involved in your work and what are the strongest images and/or influences that have been accompanying you?

I was fortunate to be raised on a farm in Northeast Nebraska by parents involved in the U.S. family farm and sustainable agriculture movement. Over the last twenty five years, my family has transitioned our farm from conventional dairy, livestock and crop production to organic crop and grass-fed beef production. Throughout our childhood and even today, my parents instilled in me and my siblings the importance of farming in society, the responsibility farmers have to protect and enhance soil and other natural resources, and the fact that our current farm policies are not working for farmers, the environment or society.

2. This year both the European and the US will reallocate their farm budgets and rewrite related policies. What in your opinion, what are main issues of the US Farm Bill? And what are the common challenges facing these two policies?

For the US Farm Bill, the major issue is not about agriculture, but about the overall federal budget and specifically, the budget deficit. The US Farm Bill, despite representing a relatively small percentage of total US budget is seen as a ripe area to cut spending, so the discussion is largely focused on cuts to programs and funding. I would expect there are similar financial concerns occurring in the CAP discussions in the EU as well.

Beyond the budget, the other large issue that I believe is driving a lot of the shift in policy focus in both Europe and the US is climate change, yet it is not something we can discuss openly in the US. We are focusing almost exclusively on subsidized crop insurance, not price supports, as a farm policy mechanism, which reflects concerns about the impacts of weather and climate, not the markets, on farm profitability. Yet, without being able to name climate change as the driver, we are not having an honest conversation about these real risks. As a result, we are not addressing the real “on the ground risk,” but instead only attempting to mitigate farmers’ financial risk. While this financial risk mitigation IS important, IATP believes we need policy to also support farmers to do what they can to minimize risk associated with climate change and shifting weather patterns directly in the fields as well. Unfortunately, this type of “climate compliance” connected to federally subsidized crop insurance is not being discussed in the current Farm Bill debates.

3. In the European Union 40% of the EU’s overall budget is given in farm subsidies. 80% of it goes to 20% of businesses. How do these figures compare with the US?

The EU spends a much larger percentage of its budget on farm subsidies than the US. Even within the US Farm Bill, the majority of the funding goes to nutrition programs (approximately 70%), not agricultural support. However, there are more similarities when it comes to who gets the majority of agricultural subsidies – 10% of US farms received approximately 74% of total farm subsidies from 1995-2010.

4. EU civil society is calling for subsidies to shift from rewarding large structures to small farmers (who need income support), quantity foods and for public money to support public goods (i.e. fight against climate change, preservation of biodiversity). Are there similar trends in the US vis-à-vis the 2012 Farm Bill?

There are similar calls within civil society in the US to reform the Farm Bill and farm policy overall to support more sustainable agricultural production and specifically to address environmental and climate problems, while meeting our food security needs. However, in the current budget deficit situation, there is little optimism even among the strongest advocates that there will be much opportunity in the 2012 Farm Bill negotiations to introduce any meaningful new policy solutions – focus is primarily on protecting existing conservation and sustainable agriculture programs and funding.

 5. To what extent is the American public engaged and interested in the reform of the Farm Bill? What are the most progressive campaigns on the Farm Bill and what issues do they address?

While there has been an uptick in interest in local and organic foods and farming systems among a growing segment of society – especially younger people – overall, the American public is not significantly engaged in the Farm Bill debate.

6. Do you have any hopes that the Farm Bill will this time round provoke some real change for better or that it will just be business as usual? In your opinion, what are the greatest threats to change for better?

Unfortunately, I am not optimistic that there will be significant positive change in this Farm Bill, with the focus on cutting (or defending) funding and programs – this leaves little room for the kind of innovative thinking we need to develop a food and farm policy for the future. However, I do think that the lack of change may itself ironically be a driver for real change in the future, as the American public is slowly waking up to the fact that our food and farm policy is increasingly not meeting the needs of either farmers or eaters. Over the next five years, as interest continues to grow in more local and sustainable food and farming systems, at the same time as we see the ongoing impacts of existing farm policy (and the cuts in critical programs that are likely to occur), I think there will be a real opportunity to build a movement that can bring together food activists with family farmers and rural community members to push for a more sustainable and viable food and farm policy.