Ask a Scientist: Will the New Farm Bill Transform the US Food System?

August 10, 2023 | 1:44 pm
Pigs crowded into a CAFOMark Stebnicki/Pexels
Elliott Negin
Former Contributor

Every five years or so, Congress passes a multifaceted, multibillion-dollar bill 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. Although it is generically called the “farm” bill, it is really a food and farm bill that funds programs covering crop insurance, financial credit, and export subsidies for farmers, as well as nutrition-assistance support for low-income households. The most recent farm bill, enacted into law in December 2018, expires at the end of September.

A product of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the first farm bills were enacted in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl drought, which ruined farmland across the Great Plains. Today, the legislation’s primary goals are largely the same as they were 90 years ago: ensuring an adequate food supply, protecting the environment, and maintaining fair profits for farmers and reasonable prices for consumers. More often than not, however, the legislation has failed to sufficiently support midsize and small farms—as opposed to large industrialized farming operations—or help food insecure Americans in an equitable, responsible way.

Last fall, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and more than 150 other organizations, including nutrition, sustainable farming, rural development, racial equity, labor, and environmental groups, sent a joint letter to President Biden, urging him to prod Congress to pass a new farm bill this year that transforms the US food system. The letter cited seven key issues that the bill should address, among them the climate crisis, food insecurity, worker protections, food safety, and systemic racism at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The trillion dollar question: Is Congress paying any attention?

At this point, it is unclear whether Congress will be able to reauthorize the farm bill by its September 30 expiration date, mainly because the protracted debt ceiling negotiations held up everything on Capitol Hill. For an update on the bill’s status, I turned to Ricardo Salvador, director of the UCS Food and Environment Program since 2012. Before joining UCS, Salvador—who has a doctorate degree in crop production and physiology from Iowa State University—served as a food program officer with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, an associate professor of agronomy at Iowa State University, and an agricultural extension agent at Texas A&M University.

EN: Let’s start by talking about food insecurity. Roughly three-quarters of the 2018 farm bill’s funding went to USDA nutrition programs, particularly the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program), and as of last November, some 42 million Americans were receiving food stamps. During the coronavirus pandemic Congress increased benefits, but earlier this year, the USDA ended the pandemic SNAP expansion. What are the likely consequences, and what will Congress do about it?

RS: This move was expected, because the SNAP “temporary allotments” you referenced were only intended to be a short-term pandemic measure. After the government officially declared that the public health emergency was over, the 32 states and territories still distributing emergency benefits—including Washington, D.C., the US Virgin Islands, and Guam—returned to pre-pandemic SNAP payment levels.

Unemployment rates have fallen by half and stabilized since the early days of the pandemic, and food prices—fueled by inflation—are finally dropping. Even so, millions of people are still vulnerable, particularly children in single-parent households, the elderly, the disabled and housebound, the homeless, the underemployed, and workers in low wage jobs. If we return to pre-pandemic levels of food insecurity, 10.5 million households will be affected.

The immediate consequences range from health and mental crises to decreased educational attainment to forcing people to choose between feeding their families and paying for utilities and other necessities. Meanwhile, the food industry, particularly grocers, will lose the business that those additional SNAP benefits generated, and private charities—which are dependent on donations—will strain to pick up the slack.

You ask an important question, because the ultimate issue is not the USDA’s pandemic response, which was generally positive, but rather the underlying economic premise that determines SNAP benefit levels and who qualifies for them, which is woefully outdated. In spite of a recent update of those calculations, which Republicans in Congress strongly resisted, the poverty threshold that defines how SNAP operates was determined more than 50 years ago, and even then it was applied uniformly across the country, failing to account for the cost of living variations from state to state and city to city.

What will Congress likely do? As in every five-year cycle, Republicans will predictably try to cut benefits, both in terms of dollars and the number of people who qualify. They may believe that many of the program’s beneficiaries—the urban poor and people of color, who make up a disproportionate share of people living below the poverty line—don’t vote Republican. But their calculation ignores the fact that roughly an equal number of SNAP benefit recipients are rural residents, and include such traditional Republican constituencies as farmers (yes, some of the very people who produce food), veterans, and the elderly. That’s why the powerful ag and food lobbies—particularly those representing such grocery giants as Walmart, Kroger, and Amazon—support the SNAP program, so it is highly unlikely that the Republicans will be able to gut the program. All the same, the political theater will require SNAP supporters to spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy to defend and justify the program, which actually needs to be updated and expanded, not reduced.

That said, it is important to not lose sight of the fact that the root cause of the poverty underlying US food insecurity at a level that should be a national embarrassment is the crisis of economic inequality resulting from low and inadequate wages. Congress has to address the minimum wage issue.

EN: Agriculture accounts for 10 percent of US global warming emissions, so whatever farmers and ranchers can do to cut their overall pollution would certainly help, not only to combat climate change, but also to protect our waterways. How is the new farm bill shaping up to address the agriculture sector’s pollution problem?

RS: It’s a mixed bag, and the overall damage to the climate is much worse than that 10 percent Environmental Protection Agency figure you cited suggests. The agricultural sector’s carbon footprint more than triples when you include the entire US food system’s emissions.

The good news is that the USDA is finally taking seriously agriculture’s role in reducing heat-trapping emissions. The bad news is that the very structure of today’s US agriculture and food system is intrinsically polluting. So the ag and food industries are resistant to making any dramatic—and necessary—changes, will only agree to minor modifications underwritten by taxpayer dollars, and object to verification standards demonstrating that any new practices to cut emissions are actually effective. UCS opposes allowing farmers to use offsets, carbon markets, or other flimsy instruments for climate claims until there are enough data and measurement systems to ensure that new practices actually reduce the sector’s climate impact.

Let me give you a better idea of what we’re up against. The US agriculture sector covers 654 million acres of pasture and rangeland for grazing cattle and another 391 million acres to produce corn, soybeans and other field crop monocultures—and all of them pollute one way or another. For example, ranchers fatten cattle on grain during the final months of their lives in large-scale feedlots, which—along with massive hog and poultry feeding operations—are major sources of methane and nitrous oxide emissions, primarily due to the way cattle digest fiber and the mismanagement of open-air manure lagoons. Farmers, meanwhile, overuse and mismanage nitrogen-based fertilizers on their field crops, adding to the sector’s nitrous oxide emissions which is nearly 300x more potent heat trapping gas than carbon dioxide.

To reverse the US farm and ranch system’s climate-warming impact, the way we produce field crops and livestock must change dramatically. Grain, forage, and livestock production should be integrated and dispersed, and farmers should produce crops in polycultures that conserve and regenerate nutrients to reduce fertilizer use and the opportunity for polluting mismanagement. In addition, farmers must replace as much corn, soybeans and other annual row crops as possible with perennial vegetation, some for agricultural and soil-building purposes, and some for carbon sequestration purposes. Such a major structural change is not politically feasible in one fell swoop.

The current food and farm bill does not include an explicit budget item for climate programs. Fortunately, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has used a line of credit that his predecessors have had with the Treasury Department dating back to farm bill’s inception to create a $3.1 billion Climate-Smart Commodities program to encourage the interest of the largest food and agriculture operations, or—to put it in stark political terms—to neutralize their opposition. Additionally, our friends in Congress were able to secure $19.5 billion in last year’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to support the USDA’s climate programs.

No surprise, Republicans have challenged Vilsack’s authority to use the USDA’s line of credit with the Treasury Department for climate programming as well as the pool of funding outside of the farm bill to strengthen the agency’s ability to address climate. The Republican caucus also is trying to restrict or claw back IRA climate funding, or at the least discount those funds from the amount authorized in the farm bill.

EN: As I mentioned in passing in my introduction, farm bills have historically favored large industrialized operations at the expense of small and midsize farms. And Big Ag corporations have been forcing the little guys out of business for decades. What can Congress do to stop this alarming trend?

RS: The solutions are well known. Congress should only support farmers who need help, it should set a ceiling on the amount of government payments to individual farms, and should require farmers to implement and verify practices that protect the environment. Members of Congress introduce these sound reforms every five years and, like clockwork, Big Ag interests routinely defeat them.

EN: While large industrialized operations have been swallowing up small and midsize farms, a relatively small number of corporations have cornered much of the US food system, resulting in fat profits for them and high grocery bills for the rest of us. Could the farm bill address this problem?

RS: Yes. As I just mentioned, the government should not pad the profits of corporations that are already hugely profitable, especially a handful of meat and poultry processors, such as Tyson Foods, which use their outsize power to get away with endangering their workers and gouging farmers and consumers. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack should use his existing authority to enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act, an anti-monopoly concentration measure that has been in place for a century. But Big Ag and its supporters have successfully attached riders to agriculture appropriations bills restricting the secretary’s ability to write and enforce rules protecting small farmers and ranchers.

EN: In 1920, Black farmers represented 14 percent of all US farmers and owned about 15 million acres of land, according the USDA’s own figures. By 2017, they accounted for only 1.6 percent of the nation’s 3.4 million farmers. A major reason for this deplorable loss is the USDA’s deep-rooted culture of discrimination. What should Congress do to address this appalling situation?

RS: The single biggest thing Congress could do is to incorporate the Justice for Black Farmers Act in the new food and farm bill. This would help begin the massive undertaking of reversing the discriminatory exclusion of Black farmers from funding, loans, and technical support, and begin the process of restoring millions of dollars and years of lost investment to the Black farming population.

EN: More than half a million people work in the US meatpacking industry, and during the pandemic, we heard horror stories about the conditions they work under. Another 2 million people work in US farm fields, where temperatures have been soaring. Will the farm bill provide stronger workplace protection?

RS: We’ve been working with several members of Congress to move food system worker protection issues from the Labor Department’s jurisdiction to the USDA. The Labor Department has historically exempted food chain workers—the people who work on farms and in factories, warehouses, supermarkets, and restaurants—from receiving the protections and benefits that apply to all other US workers. It’s another relic of the original farm bill era, when the Roosevelt administration agreed to the exemptions at a time when farm and food workers were primarily Black in exchange for Southern Democrat support for the New Deal.

Today’s victims of these labor protection exemptions are primarily politically vulnerable, economically desperate immigrants, and it is clear that they are being exploited and why. This barbaric, racist policy must end. As part of our campaign to get rid of the exemptions, we recently briefed more than 100 congressional staff members on food and farm bill reforms that would protect food chain workers. Our campaign partners include the Florida Association of Farm Workers; the Health, Environment, Agriculture, Labor (HEAL) Food Alliance; and the United Food and Commercial Workers. Our supporters on Capitol Hill include California Sen. Alex Padilla and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

EN: Taxpayer-funded agricultural research and development (R&D) has historically generated an average of $20 in benefits to the US economy for every dollar invested, according to USDA data. Regardless, over the past two decades, federal funding for agriculture and food research has declined by a third. UCS has done a lot of its own research over the last decade that provides a blueprint for the USDA. What would you like Congress to include in the farm bill that would encourage more R&D funding?

RS: We’ve been working alongside research universities to encourage the government to invest more money in scientific R&D, as well as to dedicate a greater proportion of that funding to agroecological research and the emerging field of sustainable nutrition science, which sits at the intersection of nutrition, food production, and the environment. A UCS analysis found that the government has invested less than 25 cents out of every thousand dollars in federal research funding in this critical area. In addition, there should be more investment in institutions that the government has historically relegated to second-class status, including Hispanic-serving colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, and 1890 land-grant colleges and universities that primarily serve Black students in the South.

EN: Finally, what can the general public do to encourage Congress to pass a new farm bill that helps establish a sustainable, equitable, and healthy food and farm system?

RS: This is very important. The traditional advice would be to press your elected representatives in Congress, particularly if they sit on the agriculture committee in the House or Senate. That is still good advice. However, we need to shift the field of play to the public square by expanding the number of individuals and groups who have a stake in the food and farm bill. Collectively, we need to persuade President Biden that he can use the bill to deliver on his promise to combat climate change and economic inequality. Finally, we have to counter agribusiness disinformation with a truthful, scientifically and ethically up-to-date narrative of how we, as a society, can provide nourishing food in a sustainable way to protect the planet and all of its inhabitants.