The Congressional Budget Office’s recent baseline projects that the next Farm Bill in the United States will cost US$1.51 trillion, making it the most expensive one in the country’s history. During a recent event, policy experts discussed what to expect from the upcoming legislation and what it means for the future of the country’s food and agriculture systems.
Renewed roughly every five years, the Farm Bill is the largest package of legislation in the U.S. dedicated to the country’s food and agriculture systems. Around 80 percent of the spending will support nutrition assistance, and much of the remaining 20 percent goes toward crop insurance, commodities, and conservation. The Farm Bill also includes sections for rural development, research and extension programs, credit, forestry, and more.
“It’s a very big bill with hundreds of programs, a thousand pages, trillions of dollars, and a weird mixture of food assistance…and the remaining quarter for agricultural support that mainly goes for corn and soybeans and ethanol,” says Marion Nestle, author, nutritionist and Professor Emerita at New York University.
“But what there isn’t,” Nestle continues, “and what I think is badly lacking, is an overall overview that says what we really need in this country is an agricultural policy that supports health and supports environmental protection. And without that, the Farm Bill is still going to be a mess and very, very difficult to deal with.”
Adrian Lipscombe, a chef and Founder of the 40 Acres Project agrees that it’s “a mess,” but she urges everyone to find the people hidden within its pages. “How do we bring humanity back into the Farm Bill?” she asks. “This is about food…It’s about feeding people. But it’s also about our health and our Earth, and making sure that we survive.”
To strengthen the country’s food system, supporting farmers is essential, the speakers argue. But Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University points out that many producers are struggling and failing to achieve a livable wage.
“That’s not fake news. It’s really true because our small scale and many of our mid-scale farmers aren’t making it,” Merrigan says. “And how do we help those people out? How do we use the Farm Bill to help those people out?”
Ben Thomas, Senior Policy Director for Agriculture at the Environmental Defense Fund, argues that for many farmers, the programs in the Farm Bill are “critical resources.” And while he, like the other speakers, understands the appeal of overhauling the legislation and starting anew, he encourages everyone to celebrate and lift up the programs that are achieving results and that “we should be building upon.”
But Lipscombe reminds the audience that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s approach has been far from equitable. “There’s voices missing from the Farm Bill,” she says. “That really does affect, when it gets to the bottom line, when it trickles down to the immigration workers, to Black and Brown farmers, to to the small and medium sized farms. We have a lot of people this Bill affects, but their voices are not being heard.”
Jennifer Otten, Associate Professor at the University of Washington, also notes that many eaters find themselves alienated from the Farm Bill and fail to see their connection to the legislation. This, she believes, must be fixed to build advocacy efforts around the Bill and ensure that the programs voters want to see are included and funded.
“The food and ag community can really start to think about reframing the issue so everyone can see themselves as part of the Farm Bill,” says Otten.
Listen to the full panel conversation on Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg to hear more about how speakers approach education around the Fam Bill, the growing interest in using this legislation to address the climate crisis, and why the Farm Bill is, as Nestle says, “ripe for advocacy.”
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Photo courtesy of Taylor Sibert, Unsplash