U.S. Farm Bills and Policy Reforms: Ideological Conflicts Over World Trade, Renewable Energy, and Sustainable Agriculture

by Nadine Lehrer


*This book is in the Politics, Institutions, and Public Policy in America book series
(Series editors: Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly)

U.S. farm bills are home to the nation’s primary policies for agriculture, land use, and conservation. Although often outside the public spotlight, many of these policies are crucial to how land and food are managed in this country––from food stamp programs for low-income households to environmental conservation for natural resources to the often controversial commodity subsidy programs to support farmers.

Every five to seven years when the farm bill comes up for reauthorization, policymakers, interest groups, and the public spend months and often years advocating, questioning, and debating farm bill provisions. Typically when the new farm bill emerges, it appears expanded and adjusted, but rarely radically reformed.

Early in debates over the 2008 farm bill, however, this norm of incremental policy change seemed to be cracking. International trade proposals, budget constraints, and new tides of public opinion brought proposals to the table for drastically reforming commodity subsidies. But as the situational and cultural context surrounding farm bill debates changed, so too did prospects for farm bill reform. In the end, influenced by an emerging focus on biofuels and discourses of national security, the 2008 farm bill settled back into a more typical incremental policy trajectory.

Despite its ultimate conformity to the norms of incremental policymaking, the 2008 farm bill’s flirtation with radical policy reform makes it an interesting empirical case for studying processes of policy change and stability. Following the trajectory of the 2008 farm bill debates as it unfolded provides an opportunity to examine those factors––political, economic, cultural and otherwise––that typically combine to facilitate or forestall policy change. In this case, biofuels became a prominent driving force in debates in part because they helped policymakers sidestep earlier controversies over more radical farm bill reform. Alongside a decline in trade pressure to reform subsidies, increased biofuels production raised crop prices, alleviated budgetary pressures, and inspired support for commodity production in the name of national security.

Examining the gains and misses for conservation in the 2008 farm bill also sheds light on agricultural sustainability prospects embedded in farm policy. In this case, the emphasis on biofuels during farm bill debates both threatened conservation with the prospect of large-scale corn ethanol production, and also shifted public focus away from reforms that might have improved agriculture’s environmental and social footprint. At the same time, the 2008 farm bill did introduce some new prospects for environmentally- and socially-sustainable agricultural policies in the longer term.

In examining the reasons for the 2008 farm bill’s approach to and then retreat from rapid policy change, Nadine Lehrer guides us through ideological conflicts over world trade, renewable energy, and sustainable agriculture as embedded in U.S. farm policy debates. This book locates these debates within the historical context of farm bills over time, providing a concise history of agricultural policy dynamics as they relate to current issues. The book also integrates complementary theoretical perspectives from the policy change and social movement literatures, and in particular makes a case for incorporating discourse analysis into studies of policy change and policy stability. Integrating theory and history with a multidisciplinary perspective on changing situational drivers, interest group struggles, and Congressional politics, Lehrer uses the farm bill as an illustrative case for illuminating U.S. political processes and implications.

This is an important work for students and scholars of the U.S. political system, especially those focused on agricultural policy, sustainability and environmental conservation, theory and methods of policy analysis, and the intersections of policy and culture.


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