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Food & Farm Bill in Congress: 9 Steps Towards Better Food Policy

Columns 2023-03-30, 12:54pm

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Danielle Nierenberg



Danielle Nierenberg

The United States deserves—and desperately needs—a Food Bill of Rights. With the reintroduction of the Food and Farm Act, we have a meaningful opportunity to prioritize the health of people and the planet.

Every five years, the U.S. Congress debates the Farm Bill, the most important legislation that most people have never heard of. Having served in Congress since 1996, I’ve been part of many Farm Bill discussions to set priorities for the U.S. government’s investment in our food and agriculture systems.

And I’ve come to realize that we spend too much money paying the wrong people to grow the wrong things in the wrong places.

The current Farm Bill misdirects federal resources. It undermines human health and nutrition, the environment, and economic viability for small and mid-size farmers and ranchers.

In a way, we’re not farming the land—we’re farming the taxpayer.

Consider this: Just six crops (corn, rice, wheat, soy, cotton, and peanuts) receive 94 percent of all federal subsidies, and more than half of these payments—totaling $4.64 billion—go to just eight farm states.

Meanwhile, our country’s small and mid-size family farms continue to report far less income and receive a fraction of federal subsidies, if they get any at all. And farmers have to take off-farm jobs to make ends meet.

All this equals a steady influx of highly processed, cheap foods that are making Americans sick.

It’s time for change.

This morning, I introduced the Food and Farm Act. It’s a comprehensive alternative to the Farm Bill that accomplishes four goals our current food policy fails to achieve: The Food and Farm Act focuses resources on those who need it most, fosters innovation, encourages investments in people and the planet, and ensures access to healthy foods.

The food system touches so many parts of our lives: health and nutrition, climate change and resilience, immigration, education, social justice, animal welfare, and so much more. And legislation needs to reflect this reality. When we fail to understand the true scope of our food chains, the costs to Americans’ health, our environment, and our family farms and ranches are astronomical.

This bill is a vision for a better future. It’s not my vision alone—this legislation has been built over years of close working relationships with farmers, taxpayer advocates, environmentalists, nutrition experts, families, and those passionate about food systems, like you.

The bill represents the vision we all share—a future that serves farmers, families, animals, and the environment. A future where we’re stronger, healthier, and more resilient.

The bill is divided into nine sections, or titles, that outline how our goals will be enacted. Unlike the existing Farm Bill, which is hopelessly complex and expensive, we strongly believe the new Food and Farm Act should lead with transparency and open-mindedness.

Each title of the Food and Farm Act represents an important step forward.

Step 1: Fix subsidies and insurance for commodity farms. We’re calling for these programs to be streamlined by capping the total subsidies an agribusiness can claim, closing some expensive programs and loopholes, and boosting access to benefits for farmers who take meaningful steps to reduce their environmental impact.

Step 2: Bring accountability to environmental conservation. We need to take into account how effectively conservation projects achieve conservation goals. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) shouldn’t receive environmental quality incentives; these should go toward farmers adopting regenerative practices like cover cropping, soil and water conservation, and rotational pasture grazing.

Step 3: Improve global food assistance. Let's streamline certain administrative elements of existing legislation and give more flexibility to USAID and partners around the world.

Step 4: Expand access to nutritious foods for all Americans. It's time to improve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, and the Food and Agriculture Service Learning Program to ensure that schools, farmers markets, and underserved urban and rural areas have greater access to healthy foods. Plus, let's permanently fund food-as-medicine programs like produce prescriptions in all 50 states.

Step 5: Build a future for American farmers. Young people, veterans, marginalized folks, and those looking to make a career change toward farming need our support in accessing land and financial resources. And when farmers are ready to retire, we need resources for succession planning so they can pass on their knowledge, equipment, and livestock to keep the industry vibrant.

Step 6: Get serious about food waste. The Food and Farm Act includes the first food waste-focused title of any federal Farm Bill. We need to create an Office of Food Waste within the U.S. Department of Agriculture to measure, reduce, and raise awareness about food loss and waste. We’re also directing USDA to standardize the way food waste is reported so we can track progress toward our goals.

Step 7: Prioritize climate in agriculture research. Amid the climate crisis, we must invest funding and resources into programs that emphasize climate adaptation and mitigation. Research and education must address the realities of climate change—and highlight ways to help farmers become more resilient.

Step 8: Treat animals with respect. There has never been an animal welfare title in a federal Farm Bill, either. For agricultural research, we’re making sure the USDA cannot skirt animal welfare standards. For farms, we’re creating a tax incentive for small and mid-size farmers to improve infrastructure and protocols related to animal well-being. And for you, we’re reinstating the public sharing of enforcement records for the Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act.

Step 9: Recognize that our country is only as strong as our regional food networks. We’re calling for Congress to recognize that supporting vibrant and biodiverse local food systems is a cornerstone of environmental and economic resilience. The bill expands federal investment in projects that connect demand for local food with suppliers, boosts funding for states whose farmers grow a diverse range of crops, allows USDA to use rural development grants to support local meat and poultry processing infrastructure, and protects small farmers from anti-competitive practices or retaliation from big food corporations.

Just like the Farm Bill, the Food and Farm Act is wide-ranging—but unlike the Farm Bill, we’re calling for a food and agriculture system that nourishes both people and planet.

The Food and Farm Act provides a unique opportunity to build healthy, thriving communities while protecting the environment.

This legislation represents an important step toward transforming the nation's food and agriculture system into one that is resilient and supportive of safe, healthy, economically secure, and well-nourished communities.

The Food and Farm Act will sow the seeds for better agriculture policy and a healthier food system. Let’s help it take root.

— U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer (Oregon) and Danielle Nierenberg, Food Tank

(Danielle Nierenberg is the President of Food Tank and can be reached atdanielle@foodtank.com)