Three Things the 2023 Food and Farm Bill Can—and Should—Do

August 15, 2023 | 12:06 pm
photo of a farmer wearing a bucket hat and driving a tractor toward the camera, with some trees and hazy sky in the backgroundUSDA/Lance Cheung
Melissa Kaplan
Senior Manager of Government Affairs

August is usually a pretty quiet month on Capitol Hill, with senators and representatives spending the congressional recess in their home states, and little activity happening in Washington, DC. This summer, however, many House and Senate Agriculture Committee members and their staffs are busy writing the next food and farm bill. This mammoth piece of legislation, which covers everything from nutrition to conservation to crop insurance, is due to expire at the end of September, and so far neither the House nor the Senate has produced a bill.   

That may change soon: it appears likely that a bill may be introduced in the House of Representatives by early September, and in the Senate soon after. But what will these bills look like? Will the food and farm bill be business as usual, or will senators and representatives seize this opportunity to change our food and agriculture system for the better? 

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has spent the past year advocating for a food and farm bill that values climate, nutrition, racial equity, and the health and safety of food and farmworkers who produce the food we all eat. We don’t just want any food and farm bill—we want one that lives up to these priorities. 

Recently, UCS joined with other organizations including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Environmental Working Group (EWG), Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) at a press event to talk about the kind of food and farm bill our groups want to see from Congress. We emphasized that, if it comes down to it, it would be better to have no food and farm bill than a bad one

So, what constitutes a good bill? What do UCS and our partner organizations want to see Congress include in the 2023 food and farm bill? The list is long, but here are the priorities that all our groups agree on. 

Protect climate funding  

  • Last year, $20 billion in funding was provided for conservation and climate-smart agriculture in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) signed by President Biden. This represents an important step forward for the United States in addressing climate change, and it’s essential that this funding be maintained in the food and farm bill. 
  • UCS also believes that the bill should include climate-related language from the Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA), including investments in farmer-led conservation. It’s important that these climate investments are distributed equitably to reach people—such as BIPOC farmers—who are on the front lines of climate change and have valuable solutions to offer to address the climate crisis. 

Support nutrition programs, including SNAP 

  • UCS strongly opposes any cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or other US food security programs. SNAP provides benefits that supplement grocery budgets for low-income families, which helps them afford nutritious and healthy food. 
  • Over the past few months, SNAP became a hot topic during the debt ceiling crisis, with the final agreement to raise the debt ceiling including more stringent work requirements for older SNAP recipients. However, many Americans continue to suffer from hunger, and it’s essential that the lifeline of SNAP be preserved for those who need this assistance to achieve a healthy diet.   
  • Some members of Congress have already suggested further cuts to SNAP in the food and farm bill, which would be disastrous for those who rely on the program to feed themselves and their families. Congress must maintain support for SNAP’s essential benefits and produce a food and farm bill that doesn’t include any SNAP cuts. 

Protect food and farmworkers 

The food and farm bill must ensure the safety of all food chain workers. Even though the bill is under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are still many ways to build labor protections for food and farmworkers into the legislation. This should include: 

  • Increasing federal funding for safety oversight for all workers 
  • Providing and improving worker protections from exposure to harmful working conditions, including extreme heat, wildfire smoke, and pesticides  
  • Providing protections for public health emergencies, including personal protective equipment, severance pay, paid sick leave, and health care 
  • Ensuring that all food chain workers are entitled to paid sick, vacation, and family leave, affordable child care, a day of rest, health insurance, and the right to bathroom breaks 
  • Enacting labor standards in food procurement and other USDA contracts 
  • Creating pathways for farmworkers to become farm owners, including improved access to USDA programs and services for non-English speakers 
  • Creating an accessible warning system that alerts farmers and food chain workers to dangerous weather conditions 
  • Including the USDA-specific provisions of the Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act (PAMWA), which would help safeguard worker and food safety through labor standards for local meat and poultry processing grants, mandatory country-of-origin labeling for beef and pork, increased funding to hire inspectors, and a General Accountability Office (GAO) study of line speeds and their effectiveness in protecting animal, food, and worker safety. 

As extreme weather events increase, protecting workers from the impacts is more important than ever. And recent polling by UCS shows strong public support for these protections for food and farmworkers. 

UCS and supporters like you have worked hard over the past year to advocate for a food and farm bill that represents the best of this country’s values when it comes to nutrition, climate, equity, and protection for food and farmworkers. Now, it’s time for the House and Senate to produce strong, bipartisan legislation that addresses all these critical priorities. We deserve a food and farm bill that everyone can be proud of—and Congress should give us nothing less.