In Episode Six of the Farm Bill Uprooted, hear from experts from across the food system on what changes are needed in the 2023 Farm Bill and beyond. From nutrition access to fair markets to climate resilience, a better food system is possible; it’s up to us to demand it.
But when it comes to, you know, the grassroots and it comes to everyday people, and you'd be surprised at what kind of power that everyday people really have.
00:00:23 Lilly Richard
From the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, I'm Lilly Richard, and this is part six of our six-part podcast series The Farm Bill Uprooted. This podcast is made possible by the generous support of our listeners. If you'd like to support Uprooted, go to iatp.org/donate.
The Farm Bill is the most important piece of public policy shaping the U.S. food and farm system. And it comes up for reauthorization every five years, including this year. Whether you realize it or not, the Farm Bill has an impact on your life and your community, and it helps shape the society in which we live. After decades of corporate influence, the Farm Bill has enabled and reinforced an agriculture system that's divorced from the needs of both consumers and farmers. We're all paying for the social and environmental consequences, and the system itself is unsustainable, threatening our long-term food security. Already, much of the Farm Bill goes toward paying farmers when markets fail or when climate-related disasters hit, rather than supporting the changes needed to create a just, sustainable and truly climate resilient food system. So, can we fix it?
Over the past five episodes, I've talked with experts from inside and outside IATP about some of the problems in our food system and how they tie back to Farm bill policies and programs. The Farm Bill is a huge piece of legislation, and we didn't have time to cover everything, not even close, and this episode won't cover all of the solutions needed in this Farm Bill and beyond, but it's a start.
So, first of all, what's happening with the Farm Bill right now? The Farm Bill is due to be renewed by September 30, but because of conflicts in Congress, particularly within the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the process will likely be delayed. So, the new bill won't be ready by the deadline and some type of extension may be needed for the farm bill to move forward, these are the steps it needs to go through. First, the agriculture committees in the Senate and the House of Representatives vote on their own versions of the Farm bill. What passes out of each Agriculture committee is then put before the full House and Senate. Those texts are amended and voted on by the two chambers of Congress. And once they've passed, a conference committee works to reconcile the two versions into one. That final version then needs to be passed by both Chambers and signed into law by the president.
Right now, both the House and Senate agriculture committees are hard at work putting together their draft versions of the eventual Farm Bill. We don't know yet what's in these draft texts, but many Congress people have introduced marker bills that signal their intentions. Marker bills cover specific pieces of the Farm Bill. They aren't really meant to be signed into law on their own. Instead, they're intended to be rolled into the final text of the giant omnibus Farm Bill as it comes together piece by piece. I'll call out a few of these marker bills throughout the episode — specific reforms that could help fix some of the problems we've covered in this series, along with more general or far-reaching solutions that should guide work on this Farm Bill and beyond.
00:03:52 Gina Plata-Nino
Hi, my name is Gina Plata-Nino. I am the staff deputy director at the Food Research and Action Center. We are a national organization that works on eradicating the root causes of poverty-related hunger.
As we covered in episode five, the largest and for many the most important part of the Farm Bill is the Nutrition Title, which helps low-income Americans, mostly families with children, access food. But that's not all it does.
Well, do we have more than 30 minutes to say why SNAP is so important? Well, it feeds over 41 million individuals, right? But it also has a direct economic impact. With the end of emergency allotments that cut down the benefits, groceries lost about $20 billion in terms of profits. And just in the past few months, we've gotten a lot of research come out saying that, you know, people who are on SNAP are less likely to go to the ER. People who are on SNAP for a year are less likely to have high pharmaceutical cost or high healthcare costs because there's a direct correlation between having resources to eat, right, and what the effects of long-term food insecurity causes. So it has a very a very combined effect, a very real effect on what it does in terms of like the human impact, the economic impact and what it does.
I talked with Gina about some of the changes that the Food Research and Action Center, or FRAC, is advocating for in the next Farm Bill, which are mostly about removing unnecessary barriers to food access. For example, unemployed adults can't receive SNAP benefits for more than three months, even if they're actively searching for work, an arbitrary time limit that was added to the program in 1996 and expanded earlier this year as part of the debt ceiling negotiation. And the amount of benefits people receive is based on income minus certain expenses, but those allowed deductions don't always reflect the true cost of living, especially in high-rent areas and with inflation increasing the cost of basic necessities.
So, the Closing the Meal Gap Act will say we need to give people more adequate benefits. We also need to get rid of the shelter cap deduction. So, SNAP, it's a math game, right? Like you have your income, and then you have certain deductions, and there's certain populations that — rightfully so — are allowed to make those exemptions, deductions. People who have a disability or who are older adults are able to claim their shelter expenses. But you know, our working families are not allowed to do that, just particular populations. Which is good, but we should expand that across the board, because they are paying for rent, right? So, if my rent is $1,600, let me claim $1,600, not just part of that. And again, the difference is not like they're going to get a huge bump, but every little bit helps. Especially, you know, like I keep saying working family with kids because we do know that majority of SNAP users are kiddos and the kiddos do have parents that are working. And one of the best things that also this bill does is that seeking to standardize the medical deduction because depending on the state for older adults and people with disability, it's a lot more difficult to claim their medical expenses. So, this will standardize it across the U.S. So that's one bill we're looking at.
One of them, that's really pivotal for the work that we're doing right now is the Improving Access to Nutrition Act, which basically says time limits, they don't work. Where now individuals 18 to 54 can only get SNAP for three months within the three-year period, unless you can document sufficient hours of work. So, it doesn't come with like here is a job for. You here's the help so that you can get a job. Here's the transportation. Here are the resources. And it doesn't take into account where people are or that they are looking, or that they might be working 19.5 hours, but they want you to do it. You know, look for a job, apply for a job, interview for a job and start a job within three months. If not, you get cut off and you can't get SNAP for, you know, another 36 months. And there's a plethora of research, both the economic, the health impact to say it doesn't work, is administratively burdensome for the states to administer, which is what we're going to see now, and it doesn't help individuals. So that one is HR 1510 and we are really pushing that one.
And the last thing we're really pushing are the Enhanced Access to SNAP Act and the Hot Foods Act because as we looked at our older adult population, our people with disabilities, are unhouse, right. Think about food pantries, you can give them a bag of potatoes, but where are they going to cook it? So just being able to buy some of the hot food when they are in the groceries will make a world of a difference for them.
On top of removing barriers to nutrition support programs like SNAP, expanding food access, especially healthy food, means investing in community-based food systems. The SNAP program, when people are able to access it, puts money right back into the economy. Of course, under our current system, a lot of that profit is captured by grocery chains and big food companies, not the people who actually grow our food. Part of changing that means supporting small and beginning farmers and investing in small processing infrastructure and local markets that have disappeared in many places after years of food system consolidation and specialization. But investing in small farmers and local food systems will continue to be an uphill battle if the power of the largest players in the food system continues to grow. One theme that cut across all of my conversations was the need to address competition and consolidation within the food system and increase fairness in agricultural markets so that producers and workers can be paid fairly and not driven out of business. Here's Patty Lovera from the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment on three marker bills that aim to address competition.
00:09:57 Patty Lovera
One that I would kind of put in the middle, you know, on more meaningful structural forms would be creating a position at USDA. And so, the bill is called the meat Packers Special Investigator Act, which is just on the organization chart of the USDA, making somebody's job to be in charge of enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act, to come up with a strategy. Just kind of formalize and hopefully elevate that role. And then there's to keep going on this spectrum of kind of, like, really meaningful stuff, there’s several package bills that have great stuff in there. So there's the Farm System Reform Act. There's the Fairness for Small Farmers Act. And the package deals that say we’re doing this wrong on mergers and we should change the procedures, or we shouldn’t build new CAFOs, we should put in law what we're trying to do with the Packers and Stockyards Act… So the package deals (I'm not going to go through the whole thing) but they're really like hard hitting packages of competition reforms, and it's super useful to have those.
And then, of course, there's the climate.
00:11:02 Ben Lilliston
This is the, I think, real challenge. For any farmer, managing risk is kind of at the top of the list, and now the best way to manage risk based on our farm programs, is to grow commodity crops. Probably based on what we know about climate change, it would be to grow diversity of crops and your farm will look very different. So, our Farm Bill is not aligned with what we know about the challenges of climate. This is real; Stuff is happening right now. Our crop insurance payments are through the roof (you can look at that). You can look at our emergency disaster payments that have to go out in agriculture. Every decision they make on this Farm Bill needs to be informed by how severe this climate crisis is going to be and how can we build more resilience.
That's Ben Lilliston, director of climate and rural strategies at IATP, talking about one of the issues that came up in a lot of my conversations: climate. In an era of unprecedented human caused global heating that's also causing more frequent extreme weather events, our current food system is incredibly vulnerable. The good news is that more decisionmakers are beginning to recognize that the Farm Bill needs to respond to the climate crisis.
Many of the practices already supported by federal conservation programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) can both help build resilience and reduce agriculture's harmful impacts on the environment, like water pollution and biodiversity devastation caused by overuse of agrochemical inputs. But currently, three out of four farmers who apply for these programs get rejected due to lack of funds. And on top of that, the programs as they're currently set up cover some practices that reinforce harmful industrial production systems and factory farms. There are similar issues with the Rural Energy for America Program, or REAP, under the Farm Bill's Energy Title. These programs have incredible potential to support and incentivize more sustainable farming practices and on-farm renewable energy, but they need to be fully funded and targeted toward true solutions that don't make the problem worse. Here's IATP's Michael Happ.
And some of the conservation programs, they're popular on both sides of the aisle. Farmers like them, they're popular programs, right? How can those keep farmers more resilient? A lot of farmers see the value in conservation agriculture, see the climate benefits. or see even, right, the cost savings. And the Inflation Reduction Act, the big climate bill that passed last year, is going to help with that a little bit between $19-20 billion went toward these two programs in that bill, and that'll put a meaningful dent in it, and with the focus on what USDA calls “climate smart practices.”
So, I think one thing that people could definitely amplify is, we have this additional funding for climate in the Farm Bill passed through the Inflation Reduction Act, and people in Congress are looking at that extra money and saying what if we use that for something else that's not related to climate? And if people stand up and say no, right, the Congress that I elected passed this bill with climate in mind, and it should stay for climate and conservation, they might listen.
But at the same time there are some practices that we don't consider to be climate smart that might be more false solutions. So, 50% of equipped money is set aside for livestock-focused practices, and that's been a huge problem, right? Because a lot of that is going toward these manure lagoons and waste storage facilities, animal mortality facilities that are almost universally used by large concentrated animal feeding operations, including anaerobic digesters, right? That's the sort of thing where you install all this equipment, you know, put these covers over those manure lagoons and break down the methane that is emitted from those lagoons and convert it into biogas. And there is this big movement to build a whole bunch of pipelines and things like that. And we think that has some perverse effects, right? Where if you build out this infrastructure too much and you call it climate smart, you're gonna end up raising livestock for the manure.
Here's Dr. Silvia Secchi from the University of Iowa with a similar sentiment.
00:15:41 Silvia Secchi
There is a lot of room for improvement in the Farm Bill. Do you want to know the easiest thing to do? Half of the money in the conservation program EQIP — Environmental Quality Incentives Program — goes to livestock operations, including CAFOs. CAFOs, as we just discussed, are point sources. We know these are big polluters and we're still paying them to build manure pits. Stop that! We weren't doing that before 2002. We don't need to keep doing it. It was a bad idea to start. We can stop that now.
One marker bill, the EQIP Improvement Act, introduced by Senator Cory Booker, would do just that, eliminating the requirement that 50% of EQIP funds be set aside for animal agriculture and redirecting that conservation money to more sustainable and cost-effective practices. Then there's the Agriculture Resilience Act, which expands funding for conservation programs and research into lower-emitting, more resilient farming practices and technologies. In the long term and in future Farm Bills, bringing back a version of the supply management and reserve system could help ensure a stable food supply and shift us away from the system of commodity overproduction that got us here in the first place. In the meantime, other parts of the Farm Bill, like the Credit and Crop Insurance Titles, need to be reformed so they don't punish producers who are trying to diversify and farm with climate resilience in mind.
Crop insurance isn't working the way it should be, right? It's not measuring actual risk right now. Farmers should have a safety net and in the face of climate change, right, those sorts of things are important. But when it is insuring the least climate resilient practices at the expense of, and punishing the types of farms that are more climate conscious, that's a problem. And we should very much try to reform that.
Here's Kate Hansen from the Center for Rural Affairs, who works with farmers to access Farm Bill programs.
00:17:47 Kate Hansen
And what I can tell you is the folks that I get the most questions from are those that I would say are doing something different than their neighbors. That might be somebody that wants to implement conservation. That might be somebody who's growing specialty crops or that is organic or that has a really small operation. But frankly, the crop insurance system, the crop insurance programs are not working as well for those folks as they are for the conventional corn and bean folks right down the road from me. So one of the points of friction that we see are termination deadlines; specifically cover crop termination deadlines that, in order for your crop insurance to remain in good standing or for you to keep your coverage, you have to terminate your cover crop at a certain time, and it's based on your county. So if you look at the map, in our opinion, this map is not very accurate or up to date, and it's just really hard to comply with if you're doing anything different. We've got folks doing really creative things with cover crops and this is kind of rigid, and putting some people in a difficult place
And the other sort of topic in our platform relates to a final planting date that organic farmers and conventional farmers are held to in crop insurance. And so if you don't get your crop planted by a certain date, then you are penalized each day that follows. The zinger is that both organic and conventional farmers are held to the same date. But we know that organic farmers are planting crops, especially corn, later than their conventional counterparts. They're doing this because they have to wait for the soil to get to a certain temperature. They are trying not to deal with pollen contamination, and there's a whole host of reasons why they're doing that. And yet they're held to the same date and kind of penalized in an unfair way here. So we'd like to see that changed as well.
This Farm Bill, including changes to the Credit Title and the way it's implemented, also presents an opportunity to correct some of the historic racial discrimination that has held back farmers of color. Here's Margaret Krome-Lukens from RAFI-USA on their Farm Bill platform.
00:19:55 Margaret Krome-Lukens
The large themes of what we would like to see out of the Farm Bill are: we would like to see it address corporate consolidation, reverse the trend of corporate consolidation and farm consolidation. It's a Farm Bill that needs to fight climate change urgently and equitably. We would like to see a fair shot for all farmers. A lot of this has to do with just different kinds of agriculture being able to access credit, but I think that's a frame that's worth applying to, like, most USDA programs and resources. And it really needs to invest in local and regional food system infrastructure
I really can't understate the importance of how the Farm Bill is implemented, but as we try to make the law itself better, I think we're trying to think about how racial equity is woven into everything. You know, we need conservation programs to be well-funded in order for farmers to have support adopting conservation practices and fighting climate change. But who has access to that funding? How are they supported in getting it? Are there materials in their language to help or technical assistance providers to help them navigate some complex processes? So just in sort of the conservation space that's kind of an example of some of the ways that racial equity needs to be woven into the whole thing.
Many of the problems in our food system are connected to larger problems that need to be addressed beyond the Farm Bill, from immigration and labor policy reform to actual regulation of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. But changes to the Farm Bill could help to make our food system better for people and communities, farmers and the planet. Farm Bill policy has historically been driven by the interests of powerful food and agribusiness companies and lobbying groups, and they're still the loudest voices in the room. But one thing I heard over and over in my conversations was that farmers, advocates, and everyday people can make a real difference in this process by speaking up to our legislators and letting them know that we want a Farm Bill that works for us.
Yeah, I think I just want to say that engagement is really important here. Farm Bill discussions and negotiations are certainly in full swing, but the window has not closed to engage or to tell your lawmakers what you care about or what you'd like to see this cycle.
00:22:20 Ray Jeffers
I would just say, you know, advocacy, advocacy, advocacy. This bill affects the less fortunate; it affects our local and regional food systems. And so just kind of building that, that army of advocacy.
Farmers know what they need for their farms, you know. You as a community member know what your community needs, and your elected representative needs to hear that from you. You don't have to be an expert to tell them what you need. And they work for you. So just really encourage people to get involved.
00:22:54 Erin McKee VanSlooten
I mean, I think that it really does get down to those community members having a voice and being able to engage in the process that designs the food and farm system that they're depending on.
As far as like people getting involved, right, a lot of these congressional offices do listen when people call in. And in a lot of cases, the legislation is just whose voices are the loudest or who are they hearing from the most.
If you really want to get things done? It's consistency. That's what I've learned over time: consistently going back to your congressman, to your senator, or to their staff and telling them that you need this, you need that, you know. And you consistently tell it over and over and over again. You write to the district office, you call the district office because those are the folks who are gonna get you to the people that you need to talk to. You know, I think that's a big thing, but when it comes to, you know, the grassroots and it comes to everyday people? Man, you'd be surprised at what kind of power that everyday people really have.
When considering how to create a Farm Bill to meet the moment we're in now, one lesson is that systemic problems require systemic solutions. People understand the value of supporting small and beginning farmers, conservation farming and community-based food systems. Funding these good things can have immediate and tangible impacts and start to build up alternative systems that are healthier and more resilient, but without shifting the power and incentives that hold up the rest of the system, we're not going to solve the larger problems. A status quo farm bill may seem like a safe bet, but it's actually pushing us further away from the food system we need while the costs and long-term vulnerabilities pile up. While the 2023 Farm Bill hangs in the balance, a better food system is possible, and it's up to us to demand it.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please remember to subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcast platform and share the show with your friends. You can also check out our previous podcast series Uprooted: Talking COP27, in the same feed. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy works at the intersection of policy and practice to advance just, sustainable food systems. You can support our work at iatp.org/donate.