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Here’s What You Need to Know About Future of Food Policy

Columns 2024-05-09, 11:34pm

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Danielle Nierenberg



Danielle Nierenberg 

Farm Bill season isn’t over yet. As a quick refresher, the Farm Bill governs a significant majority of food policy in the United States, from agricultural commodity crop programs and crop insurance to rural development to nutrition and food relief programs like SNAP.

It’s massive legislation that usually runs on a five-year renewal cycle. The current Farm Bill was passed in 2018, which means it was supposed to be updated in 2023—but legislators couldn’t come to an agreement last year, so the 2018 Farm Bill was extended and is now set to expire in September 2024.

And this month, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives and the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate are both unveiling their own competing Farm Bill priorities.

Now we’re back at square one. Figuring out how to rewrite the Farm Bill is no easy task. When I say it’s massive, I’m not kidding—the 2018 bill topped 500 pages—and it’s frustratingly difficult to understand, even among experts.

Let’s break down the Farm Bill proposals on the table right now.

In the Senate: The Senate Agriculture Committee, led by Democratic lawmakers, have outlined various ways to strengthen rural communities and small farmers, build nutrition security in communities through food relief programs and produce prescriptions, and prioritize funding for climate and conservation initiatives. The Senate bill also takes steps toward building more equitable land access and investing in farmer mental health. You can read the Senate summary here.

In the House: The House Ag Committee, led by Republicans, is looking to support U.S. commodity farmers in international trade, reallocate climate dollars from the Inflation Reduction Act toward other unspecified conservation programs, and reduce the influence that federal agencies have over food relief programs like SNAP. The Republicans’ proposal does not reduce SNAP benefits, per se, but freezes them in place today—which has the effect of removing US$30 billion from the program over the next decade and stopping any updates to the Thrifty Food Plan. You can read the House summary here.

There’s no question that the Senate's version is more effective at achieving the goals of the food movement.

Is it perfect? Not fully. In their analysis, the Rural Advancement Foundation International praised the Senate bill for working to reverse corporate consolidation and fight the climate crisis, but noted that there’s still a ways to go in terms of strengthening fair agricultural markets and holding large meatpacking corporations accountable.

But the Senate version “provides a starting point to advance a more just, healthy and sustainable food system by protecting nutrition programs, investing in popular conservation programs, and recognizing procurement as a critical lever to improve the food system,” according to a statement from Friends of the Earth.

Meanwhile, as for the House bill: “House Republicans have proposed a dead-on-arrival Farm Bill framework that puts Big Ag’s profits over everyone else: communities, family farmers, consumers, states and local rule, farmed animals, and the planet,” says Chloe Waterman, Friends of the Earth’s Senior Program Manager.

(Republicans criticized the Senate bill, too. “We believe we need to have more farm in the farm bill,” said U.S. Senator Deb Fischer from Nebraska.)

Ideally, this shouldn’t be a partisan issue. We’re talking about the future of our food and agriculture system here—the health of people and the planet. These are priorities we should all agree on!

“The final Farm Bill must benefit rural communities, boost crop resiliency, shield farmers from climate risks, and reduce food waste. This is an important step in the right direction toward a bipartisan deal,” says Rebecca Riley, Managing Director for Food and Agriculture at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

As I mentioned, lawmakers couldn’t come to a bipartisan agreement last year. As for whether the Farm Bill could pass this year, here’s what U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had to say:

“Can it be done? Absolutely. Will it be done? I think it depends on the ability and willingness of everybody to be practical, to be thoughtful, to be innovative and to understand that we’re operating in a bit of a constrained environment,” he said during a recent visit to the Midwest.

In my view, I think we also have to keep in mind that truly sustainable, meaningful food legislation means envisioning something more justice-focused and climate-resilient than the Farm Bill.

What we really need is a Food Bill of Rights, which food heroes like Congressman Earl Blumenauer are fighting for. We need bold action to end hunger, build nutrition security and food sovereignty, and strengthen rural and urban communities, which food heroes like Congressman Jim McGovern and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree are fighting for.

Yes, it can feel like Farm Bill season is never-ending. But that means our work to push for better food policy must continue, too!

I encourage you to call your legislators and tell them what you hope to see in the country’s approach toward food, agriculture, and nutrition. And keep me in the loop, too—email me at danielle@foodtank.com, and let’s keep discussing how Food Tank can help elevate and strengthen the work you’re doing in your own communities.

Danielle Nierenberg is the President of Food Tank and can be reached at danielle@foodtank.comfoodtank.com