Glacier FarmMedia – Congress is again writing a multi-year farm bill that will shape what kind of food farmers grow, how they raise it and how it gets to consumers. It’s projected to cost taxpayers US$1.5 trillion over 10 years.
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Legislators’ response will show whether Congress supports business as usual in agriculture or a more diverse and sustainable U.S. farm system.
Modern farm bills address many things besides food, from rural broadband access to biofuels. This brings out a dizzying range of diverse agendas.
Umbrella organizations like the American Farm Bureau Federation typically focus on farm subsidies and crop insurance. Industry-specific groups all have their own interests. Environmental and conservation groups, local governments, hunters and anglers, bankers and dozens of other organizations have their own wish lists.
As a former Senate aide and senior official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, I’ve seen this intricate process from all sides.
Farm bills always are controversial because of their high cost, but this round is especially tricky. The past two years have seen major economic relief bills and measures to bolster the domestic economy. These follow unprecedented spending for farm support during the Trump administration. Legislators jockeyed over raising the debt ceiling, which limits how much the federal government can borrow to pay its bills.
Agriculture committee leaders and farm groups argue more money is necessary to strengthen the food and farm sector. If they have their way, the price tag for the next farm bill would increase significantly from current projections.
On the other side, reformers argue for capping payments to farmers and restricting eligibility. In their view, too much money goes to very large farms compared to small and medium-size producers.
Many people are surprised to learn that nutrition assistance – mainly through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps – is where most farm bill money is spent. Along with a few smaller programs, SNAP will likely consume 80 per cent of the money in the new farm bill, up from 76 per cent in 2018.
Why have SNAP costs grown? During the pandemic, benefits were increased on an emergency basis, but that temporary arrangement expired in March. Also, in response to a directive included in the 2018 farm bill, the USDA recalculated what it takes to afford a healthy diet (an extra $12-$16 per month per recipient).
SNAP is where much of the budget battle will play out. Most Republicans typically seek to rein it in; most Democrats usually support expansion.
The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act also provided $19.5 billion to the USDA for programs that address climate change.
This big pot of money has become a prime target for members of Congress looking for more farm bill funding. On the other side, conservation advocates, sustainable farmers and progressive businesses oppose diverting climate funds for other purposes.
There also is growing demand for Congress to require USDA to develop better standards for measuring, reporting and verifying actions designed to protect or increase soil carbon. Interest is rising in “carbon farming,” but without more research and standards, observers worry that investments in climate-smart agriculture will support greenwashing.
Mixed research results have raised questions as to whether establishing practice-based carbon markets is premature.
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Nearly one-third of current members of Congress were first elected after the 2018 farm bill was enacted. This is their first farm-bill cycle. I expect that, as often occurs in Congress, new members will follow more senior legislators’ cues and go along with traditional decision making.
This will make it easier for entrenched interests, like major commodity groups, to maintain support for programs that provide revenue support for crops like corn, wheat and soybeans. These programs are complex, cost billions of dollars and go mainly to large-scale operations.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s current stump speech spotlights the fact that 89 per cent of U.S. farmers failed to make a livable profit in 2022, even though total farm income set a record. Vilsack asserts that less-profitable operations should be the focus of this farm bill – but when pressed, he appears unwilling to concede that support for large-scale operations should be changed in any way.
My dream farm bill would invest in three priorities: organic agriculture as a climate solution; infrastructure to support vibrant local markets and shift away from dependence on exporting low-value crops; and agricultural science and technology research aimed at reducing labour and chemical inputs and providing new solutions for sustainable livestock production.
In my view, it is time for tough policy choices, and it won’t be possible to fund everything.
– Kathleen Merrigan is the executive director for the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University. This article was originally published at the Manitoba Co-operator.