(Tompkins Weekly, 4-26-23, by Elizabeth Keokosky)
Every 5 years Congress negotiates the Farm Bill. It is a wide-ranging bill with more than half a trillion dollars to spend, and twelve separate segments, called “Titles,” that authorize most federal policies governing food and agriculture. It was first passed in 1933, during the catastrophes of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. as New Deal legislation to aid farmers in desperate need of money to avoid foreclosures. In 1938 the bill incorporated the Soil Conservation program and made payments available to farmers who agreed to practice soil conservation methods, helping both farmers and erosion in one popular policy.
The 2023 Congress is legislating a new version of the Farm Bill, and social justice and climate activists are hoping that Climate Change could drive farm policies in much the same way. They are hoping for revolutionary change.
Over the years the Farm Bill has added new programs. In 1973 it incorporated Food Stamps – renamed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the 80s – the nation’s most critical anti-hunger program. It became one large segment, the Nutrition Title, and now takes around 80% of the bill’s funding. At first glance it seems incongruous, but it makes clear the link between food assistance, farm assistance, and conservation practices, and the important connection between these interdependent pieces of legislation. Politically it also makes one platform to create broad coalitions of support among conflicting interests.
These interests are great because the implications and outcomes of the bill go well beyond the federal tax dollars being spent. For instance, when the Farm Bill provides nutrition and purchasing guidelines for SNAP, the effect is felt in food growing, processing, and retail markets. When farmer risk assistance programs provide farmers with insurance safety nets that depend on “good farming practices,” they incentivize a certain set of farming methods based on how these practices are defined. Many “experts in the field,” who define them, are funded by corporations and still embrace the Big Ag mantra of mega-growth, specialization, efficiency, and profit, and not the re-discovered importance of farming for diversity, biological integration, and soil health. The insurance companies are often likely to reflect the safety of the status quo.
Because of climate change, food production. and food choices are so deeply interlinked, it is extremely important that any policies to decrease hunger or regulate agriculture in the U.S. must align with goals to address climate change. Not only does climate change increase food insecurity with fires, droughts and extreme weather, but it is compounded by agricultural methods and policies that decrease air, water, and soil quality. The USDA is already responding to this, and they are incentivizing regenerative agricultural farm methods as an antidote to the ecological disasters of today, in addition to the older conservation programs. These practices increase organic matter and grow the soil’s natural ecosystem and encourage a plant/microbe interaction that prioritizes soil health. They can improve production, hold water in the soil, decrease emissions, and nurture biodiversity. They need to become a part of the 2023 Farm Bill.
Climate change and biodiversity loss are deeply influenced by industrialized farming’s use of fossil fuels in growing, transporting, and packaging. Emission reductions are needed in all sectors of the economy, and are especially necessary for agriculture and food processing, which create 30% of all emissions worldwide – second only to energy. Corporate agribusiness encourages practices such as continuous monocropping and heavy use of fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, which perpetuate unthinking devastation through erosion, pollution, and loss of habitat. The World Wildlife Foundation reports that “conversion from native ecosystems to row crop agriculture resulted in the loss of 1.8 million acres of grassland habitat in the Great Plains in 2020 and 10 million acres between 2016-2020 (approximately half the size of Maine).”
Not surprisingly, the current omnibus nature of the Farm Bill brings in a wide range of stakeholders from non-profit social equity groups to corporate interests like Exxon and Dupont. What used to be “a little struggling band of farmers talking to their congressmen”, has now ballooned into lobbying groups ranging from the American Bankers Association to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which, among other things, wants to block efforts to limit the marketing of unhealthy food to children. Grain companies like Cargill, the largest privately held company in the United States, and agrochemical and biotechnology giants like Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, have become transnational corporations, big enough and consolidated enough to have tremendous price leverage and control over what farmers need to buy and sell. Most of the farm bill subsidies go toward large farm agribusinesses that work with these transnational corporations, not the smaller, diverse farmers who need them to survive and prosper.
Like it or not, we, the generations that are living through these next decades, are pivotal to securing the health of the world by changing the way that we humans do business. It is critical to do so now. The most Important thing in this bill is to encourage innovative and proactive steps to create better farm, food, and energy policy for environmental and human health. It is also to make sure a greater diversity of farmers implements it and a greater diversity of people are fed by it. Regenerate America is lobbying lawmakers to dedicate 5 to 10 percent of the farm bill’s funding toward incentivizing regenerative agriculture through education, funding, and technical assistance. We in Tompkins County New York have Senator Gillibrand and Representative Molinaro, who are each on the Agricultural committees of their respective legislative bodies. Write to them and insist you want healthy soil and foods NOW. Given the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report timelines, we cannot wait for another 5 years.
To learn more about this bill go to sustainableagriculture.net/our-work/campaigns/fbcampaign/what-is-the-farm-bill/
Elizabeth is a long-time gardener who lives in Danby in a stone house built by her husband. She worked in computing at Cornell and started a non-profit cooperative utilizing biomass for energy after a late-in-life degree in Regional Economics at Cornell’s City and Regional Planning. She is now secretary to the Conservation Advisory Council in Danby, has two grown-up children, attends Quaker Meeting, and tries to make her way through the various contradictory perspectives of modern life.
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