Ask a Scientist: Stopping Big Ag from Hijacking US Farm and Food Policy

May 14, 2024 | 6:06 pm
Elliott Negin
Former Contributor

Every five years or so, Congress reauthorizes a comprehensive, multibillion-dollar law that has a major impact not only on farmers and ranchers—who make up less than 2 percent of the US population—but also on the environment, public health, and the economy. Generically called the “farm” bill, it is actually a farm and food bill that supports a wide range of programs, including ones that cover crop insurance, financial credit, and export subsidies for farmers, as well as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. SNAP, which eats up 80 percent of the bills’ total budget, currently serves 41 million low-income Americans.

The first farm bills, a product of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, were enacted in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression and drought-driven Dust Bowl catastrophe. Unfortunately, the original farm bills’ lofty goals of ensuring an adequate food supply, protecting the environment, and maintaining fair profits for farmers and reasonable prices for consumers have largely gone unmet in more recent iterations of the law. Successive farm bills have subsidized large, industrialized operations at the expense of midsize and small farms and failed to adequately help food insecure Americans in an equitable, responsible way.

Unable to reauthorize the 2018 farm bill by its September 30, 2023, expiration date, Congress enacted a one-year extension last November. A month later, more than 100 advocacy and labor organizations sent a letter to the leaders of both the House and Senate agriculture committees recommending nearly three dozen provisions (called “marker bills”) for the farm bill that would make the US food and agriculture system more sustainable, resilient, and fair. Besides the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the letter’s signatories included the Climate Justice Alliance, HEAL Food Alliance, National Black Food and Justice Alliance, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and the United Food & Commercial Workers. Their suggested marker bills included provisions that would broaden access to US farm loans for historically underserved borrowers, help farmers address the climate crisis, better protect food and farm workers, halt industrial agriculture mergers by strengthening relevant antitrust laws, and expand SNAP benefits and government nutrition programs.

A major—if not the major—reason farm and food bills routinely fail to live up to their original intent is the undue influence the agribusiness sector has over Congress, which it exerts via campaign contributions and lobbying. The sector includes commodity crop traders, meat and poultry processors, fertilizer and pesticide makers, multinational food and beverage companies, giant supermarket chains, and all of their related trade associations.

Unlike the backroom machinations of other sectors, most notably the fossil fuel industry, agribusiness’s influence peddling is largely overlooked by the mainstream news media. So, to shine a light on what goes on behind the scenes, UCS’ Food and Environment Program recently published a report, Cultivating Control, documenting how much the agribusiness sector spends to sway Congress as well as how much it contributes to key lawmakers’ election campaigns. The report then recommends practical steps Congress and federal agencies could take to better meet the needs of small and midsize farms, farm and food workers, and the public at large.

For more details about the report’s findings, I turned to one of its coauthors, Omanjana Goswami, an interdisciplinary scientist with the Food and Environment Program. Before joining UCS in 2022, Goswami served as a staff scientist at the Center for Food Safety and a science policy fellow in the office of US Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. She holds a doctorate degree in environmental science from Rutgers University.

EN: Let’s start with your report’s top findings. How much did the agribusiness sector spend on lobbying over the last five years, who were the biggest spenders?

OG: The agribusiness sector spent more than $793 million on lobbying on a range of issues between 2019 and 2023. But we looked more closely at the sector’s specific lobbying on the food and farm bill. It is a bit complicated, because lobbyists list all the legislation and issues they’ve lobbied on in quarterly disclosure reports they are required to file with Congress, but they don’t have to disclose how much lobbying time they spent on each issue or bill.

What we can say is that giant agribusinesses, food and agriculture trade associations, and other special interest groups reported that they spent more than $523 million in lobby expenditures explicitly on the farm bill in their disclosure reports. Top spenders included the American Crystal Sugar Company, the American Farm Bureau Federation, Koch Industries, and the US Chamber of Commerce. Our entire dataset shows that 561 companies, industry associations, other special interest groups and advocacy organizations reported lobbying on the food and farm bill during this time period.

EN: You also tracked agribusiness campaign contributions to the ranking members of the Senate and House agriculture committees. Who were the big spenders, and who received the most? Where do those lawmakers stand on the issues UCS cares about most?

OG: Unsurprisingly, the agribusiness sector wants to influence the lawmakers who are responsible for drafting the food and farm bill by donating to their re-election campaigns. Between 2019 and 2023, the agribusiness sector contributed $3.4 million to Rep. Glenn G.T. Thompson (R-Pa.), chair of the House Committee on Agriculture; Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), ranking member of the House Committee on Agriculture; and Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. The current chair of the Senate committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), is retiring this year and is not accepting campaign contributions.

Clearly, Rep. Scott and Sen. Stabenow are more in tune with issues that UCS supports. Both of them have been longstanding champions of several provisions we are recommending to be included in the farm bill package. Recently, Rep. Scott wrote an opinion column for an agriculture trade publication highlighting policy priorities that reflect our interests.  

EN: Obviously, the public is not privy to what agribusiness sector lobbyists say to members of Congress and their staffs behind closed doors, but you have good idea of what some of the top lobbyists want. Your report provides a case study of the American Farm Bureau Federation. What can you tell us about the Farm Bureau?

OG: The American Farm Bureau Federation is one of the most influential and powerful lobbying organizations in the food and farming sector, and one way it tries to impress Congress is by wildly overstating how many people it represents. To pad its numbers, it includes people who purchase Farm Bureau Insurance, who likely have no idea that they are considered members of a large, multipronged lobbying enterprise.

Along with its state-based chapters, the Farm Bureau spent more than $15 million lobbying between 2019 and 2023 on a number of issues, including the farm bill. Our report details some of the Farm Bureau’s agenda, but to sum it up, it promotes policies that prioritize profits over public health and the environment and especially ones that protect the interests of businesses that grow corn, soybeans, and other commodity crops.

EN: I see that Koch Industries is among the top 15 spenders on farm bill lobbying. I’ve written a lot about that company and its owner, Charles Koch, who—along with his late brother David—has spent significantly more than anyone else to spread disinformation about climate science and renewable energy. His company—the second-largest privately held US corporation—is one of the top 25 US corporate water and carbon polluters, and is a defendant in a climate accountability lawsuit brought by the state of Minnesota. What’s Koch Industries’ angle on the farm bill?

OG: Koch Industries, which pulled in $125 billion in revenue last year, is a sprawling multinational conglomerate that owns oil refineries and pipelines; markets crude oil, coal, chemicals, wood pulp and paper; trades energy derivatives; and—here’s what likely accounts for its interest in the farm bill—manufactures ammonia, fertilizer, and other agrichemicals. In fact, it is one of the world’s largest fertilizer manufacturers, and we can very well speculate that the company is lobbying against including climate investments and initiatives in the farm bill. Given the company sells fertilizer, it is at least indirectly responsible for the nitrogen pollution that comes from overapplying it, which is the primary cause of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

EN: To tip the scales in favor of a fairer farm bill, UCS and other advocacy organizations secured grants late last year for more than two dozen grassroots groups representing farmers, workers, low-income families, and communities most impacted by climate change to give them a louder megaphone in the legislative debate. Tell us a little about who was involved, who received the grants, and the goals of the project.

OG: UCS and the other organizations that arranged for the grants launched the Transformational Farm Bill campaign, which is closely aligned with UCS’ positions on creating a fairer food and farming system. As you mentioned in your introduction, the campaign was able to get more than 100 other organizations to sign on to a letter to the leadership of the House and Senate agriculture committees recommending 34 marker bills that would center racial equity, end hunger, increase access to nutritious food, meet the challenges posed by climate change, ensure the safety and protection for food and farmworkers, and prevent consolidation in the food and farming sector.

For example, there are marker bills that would increase land access opportunities for underserved and new farmers just entering the profession, and address longstanding discrimination against Black farmers and provide them protection against land loss. Other marker bills, such as the Agriculture Resilience Act, would tackle the climate crisis by making investments in scientific research, US Department of Agriculture-led conservation programs, sustainable nutrition science, and several other programs spanning the breadth of the food and farming sector.

The purpose of the grants is to empower groups representing farmers, workers, and communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis to advocate for a better farm bill and create a more diverse and equitable food and farming system. There are grantees in all corners of the country, including US territories and tribal nations, such as the Navajo Nation and the Nez Perce Tribe. Grantees, meanwhile, represent groups advocating for better working conditions for farmworkers, such as the Farmworker Association of Florida and Alianza Nacional de Campesinas; access to land and technical assistance for undeserved and Black farmers in vulnerable communities, such as the Kansas Black Farmers Association and Kentucky Black Farmers Association; and creating seed sovereignty, such as the Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance.

Thanks to the grants, several organizations were able to hire new staff to increase their capacity to engage in federal policy advocacy and organize events that bring their constituents to Washington to meet with members of Congress. For example, the Hand, Heart and Soul Project, which predominantly serves Black and Brown families in Clayton County—the most disadvantaged county in the Atlanta metro area—hired a policy director to work on the farm bill and other federal policy issues. Another organization, the Midwest Farmers of Color Collective, hosted a farm bill training with more than 50 Black, Indigenous, and people of color farmers in attendance.

EN: Last summer, UCS commissioned two farm bill-related public opinion surveys. One polled voters across the country; the other polled voters in four states with a significant agriculture sector—Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Both surveys found broad support for the kinds of policies UCS would like Congress to adopt. Can you give us some details?

OG: The two surveys asked voters to respond to questions that covered a range of relevant national and state-specific issues, including their general awareness of the farm bill, climate change, farmworker protections, environmental health and quality, crop insurance, nutrition programs, and much more.

Let’s talk about one specific aspect of what the polls covered: protections for farmworkers. Amazingly enough, the farm bill offers no protection for food and farmworkers. The United States doesn’t even have a federal heat standard to protect outdoor workers during “Danger Season,” what we at UCS call the summer months.

It turns out that there is widespread support for a farm bill that does a better job protecting food workers and farmworkers, especially in a warming climate that makes it more difficult to work outdoors. The two polls found that 87 percent of respondents in Michigan and Pennsylvania and 80 percent nationally support workplace protections for essential workers in the farming and food industries. Majorities of respondents in the four states—as many as 64 percent in Georgia—and 70 percent of households that include a farmer agreed that the risk of illness and injury to essential food and farm industry workers is a threat to communities.

What is the status of the farm bill right now, and what can people do over the next few months to prod their representative and senators to do the right thing?

The reauthorization of the food and farm bill has been an interesting story in the making. As you mentioned in your introduction, the previous farm bill expired at the end of last September and Congress failed to pass a new bill by the deadline (which is fairly common) and negotiated an automatic one-year extension of the 2018 version.

How is it playing out in Congress now? There’s a good chance we might see a very partisan version of the bill introduced in the House in the next few weeks that will likely cut key climate-related investments, defund nutrition programs, and prop up corporate interests. What I have heard from various policy experts is that this partisan bill is not expected to be debated or signed into law, so there may be automatic extensions until Congress decides to take it up and pass a real bipartisan bill.

In light of this uncertainty, what can people do to help ensure the new food and farm bill isn’t the same old same old? They can contact their representative and senators and ask them to support provisions in the new farm bill that will protect climate investments, center racial justice and equity, create opportunities for new farmers, make investments in agricultural research, and protect farmworkers. I know that is a very big ask, but it is still a viable possibility given how massive this bill is.