As Expiration Looms, a Look Back at the 2018 Food and Farm Bill

September 21, 2023 | 10:19 am
photo of a farmer in the cab of a harvester, driving it through a field at dusk, with the last light of the sun in the backgroundLance Cheung/USDA
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

UPDATE: While national attention was focused on Congress narrowly averting a government shutdown, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 quietly expired on September 30. While this is not a crisis yet, parts of our agricultural system will be increasingly vulnerable to disruption if the law isn’t reauthorized by the end of this year.

The five-year federal legislation commonly known as the farm bill is about to expire with no new bill in sight. As congressional leaders contend with the more immediate problem of averting a government shutdown over annual spending legislation, it’s worth looking back at the farm bill passed back in 2018, and what’s at stake as it lapses.

First though, as I’ve argued before, this important legislation really should be called the food and farm bill, because it shapes nearly everything about the food on our tables. A package of nearly $1 trillion in investments, it funds food assistance programs to prevent hunger in low-income households, a massive insurance program to help farmers and ranchers recover from disasters, research to better understand and meet food and farming challenges, conservation programs to fight soil erosion and air and water pollution from agriculture, and more.

Expiration is the new normal

It’s a wide-ranging and contentious package for a divided Congress to negotiate—so much so that every food and farm bill since 2002 has missed its deadline. This one is all but certain to follow suit, expiring on September 30 without a replacement.

Chalk that up, at least in part, to a dysfunctional House majority that can’t manage to meet the most basic responsibility of Congress: appropriating funds to keep the government running. Another shutdown looks increasingly likely at the end of the month (and that’s not even the only bit of pointless theatrics House Republicans have planned). There’s also other real business for Congress to attend to this fall, from passing the National Defense Authorization Act and reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration to figuring out what to do about artificial intelligence. Moreover, as one Congress watcher points out, high prices for agricultural commodities that pushed farm incomes to record highs in 2022 have meant the largest, richest growers haven’t been clamoring for policy updates.

But they will. And as congressional leaders attempt to shape a new food and farm bill behind closed doors, the House agriculture committee chair is reduced to seeking assurances that if his committee passes a bill, a floor vote will actually follow. Again, the most basic of congressional norms, no longer normal.

Highlights (and lowlights) of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018

But let’s get back to the last go-around for the food and farm bill. Negotiated during the last presidential administration, it contained some good things, and some not-so-good things.

  • Healthy food access. On the plus side, the 2018 food and farm bill took a step forward in making healthy, locally grown food more affordable and accessible. In the bill, Congress created the Local Agriculture Marketing Program, a collection of effective programs that develop, coordinate, and expand local and regional food systems by funding farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer channels. These programs were subsequently boosted with additional funding during the COVID-19 pandemic through the American Rescue Plan. The 2018 food and farm bill also expanded a program known as GusNIP, which funds local projects that help low-income consumers purchase fresh fruits and vegetables through “cash” incentives and produce prescription programs that work. These programs can and should see even greater investment in the next bill, because as a wise former colleague pointed out, many people won’t be able to eat healthier unless we make it possible.
  • Conservation and pollution prevention. The practices that farmers use in the field have a major impact on their soil and the ecosystem services it can provide, including cleaner water, carbon sequestration, and resilience to flooding and drought. The food and farm bill funds multiple USDA programs, popular with farmers, to help them adopt and optimize climate-friendly healthy-soil practices and systems. But in 2018, House Republicans took a hatchet to the crown jewel of these programs, the tiny but mighty Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which UCS showed that same year delivers four dollars in benefits for every dollar spent. At the end of the day, the damage wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Opponents failed in their bid to eliminate CSP entirely, and on-farm conservation investments in the final bill across all programs stayed basically steady. Still, the already oversubscribed CSP took a cut—a bad move for many reasons. Agricultural runoff is the leading cause of poor water quality in rivers and streams today, the third leading source for lakes, and the second-largest source of impairments to wetlands. Water quality impacts from fertilizer pollution are getting worse with warmer winters and warmer waters. And agriculture’s contribution to climate change is growing even as farmers desperately need the climate resilience benefits that healthy-soil practices provide. As a colleague noted in 2018, maintaining the status quo in conservation feels like a step back, and we can’t afford to take another step back this year.
  • Agriculture and food systems research. Agricultural research is critical to helping farmers meet the many challenges they face, and to ensuring a healthy, sustainable food supply for the future. Research fared well in the 2018 food and farm bill, with organic research in particular receiving increased investment—see this helpful rundown from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). But the bigger picture is that publicly funded ag research has declined by a third since 2002 and is woefully insufficient to meet the needs of the future. Just this week, we submitted a letter from nearly 1,000 US scientists to the congressional leaders who will write the next food and farm bill, urging them to dramatically increase this critical investment.
  • Crop insurance and commodity subsidies. This isn’t a comprehensive listing of everything that was in the 2018 food and farm bill, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention farm subsidies. As our friends at NSAC noted at the time, there were no major reforms nor any major funding increases for the subsidies that generally flow to large-scale growers of commodity crops and livestock. The final bill did unfortunately include a new payment limit loophole—extending eligibility to a farm owner’s extended family—that effectively gives the largest commodity farms a way to rake in more subsidy dollars. (In fact, farm subsidies ballooned in 2020, as the previous administration showered money on farmers to compensate for the effects of its trade policies.) The last food and farm bill also continued to subsidize crop insurance premiums for industrial-style agriculture without in turn requiring conservation practices that would buffer farms against crop-destroying weather disasters. This has perpetuated a perverse feedback loop, as farms remain vulnerable to escalating climate change, driving crop insurance payouts ever higher at taxpayers’ expense. It’s a policy that must change.

Failure is not an option—Congress must pass a new bill, and it must do more

So what happens when the food and farm bill expires, assuming it does? Well, it’s complicated. Essentially, some programs have what’s called “mandatory” funding, and will continue even without a new authorizing bill—SNAP is one of these, so people will still get their monthly benefits. Some programs have different expiration dates that don’t match the overall food and farm bill deadline—for example, CSP and other conservation programs had their expirations extended alongside the infusion of new climate-focused farm conservation dollars in the Inflation Reduction Act—so those programs will continue as well.

There are some programs for farmers, including commodity subsidies and dairy support programs, that would begin to expire in January if there isn’t a new law in place. Some members of Congress are seeking to extend those “orphan” programs as part of an appropriations deal. The Congressional Research Service put out a report over the summer detailing the implications of expiration—which gives you some idea of which way those experts believed the wind was blowing even then.

So Congress may patch up the holes for now and take until later this year, or even early 2024, to pass a new food and farm bill. Eventually they will pass one. But it won’t be enough for that bill to simply continue the priorities and investment levels of the last one.

Instead, the next bill needs to be smarter and more forward-looking. If climate change is the existential crisis of our time (and it is), then a status quo food and farm bill simply won’t cut it. The next bill must do more—as I discussed on C-SPAN recently—to ensure that agriculture is part of the solution, to buffer farmland and our food supply from climate-related disruption, and to make a healthy food supply more sustainable for the long term. It must also do something the 2018 bill didn’t do: advance justice and safety for the workers who make our food system run, and who are increasingly endangered by climate catastrophes.

Our elected members of Congress are supposed to be in the business of making life better for the people of this country. The next food and farm bill offers a major opportunity to do just that.

I hope enough of them decide to take it.