Policy Priorities for a Healthy Food and Farm Bill

The Farm Bill is a large (currently around $300 billion) legislative package, renewed by Congress at approximately five-year intervals, that shapes federal agricultural policy. With provisions concerning everything from nutrition assistance to crop insurance to research, the Farm Bill affects almost every imaginable aspect of our food system.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has a science-based vision for the U.S. farming and food system in which farms are not factories, and do not rely heavily on fossil fuels, harmful pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers to produce huge quantities of just a few crops. Instead, farmers and policy makers aim to produce a wide variety of nutritious foods while taking the long-term environmental and health impacts of production methods into account.

The Farm Bill offers a unique opportunity to change what the nation’s farmers grow—and how they grow it—for years to come. UCS is committed to pursuing policies to support healthy food and farms. As Congress develops the next Farm Bill, UCS will advocate for the following changes:  

Expand the production and accessibility of healthy food

Increased production of fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods, particularly through local and regional food systems, will yield multiple benefits for environmental quality, nutrition, public health, and economic development. To achieve these benefits, our nation’s food and farm policy must provide new and expanded support for farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, and community organizations to engage in local and regional food systems. In particular, the next Farm Bill should:

Increase investments to grow local and regional food systems and expand access to healthy food for consumers across all income levels.

  • Include mandatory funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farmers Market Promotion Program and programs that support the redemption of nutrition benefits for low-income households at local food markets.
  • Include mandatory funding for USDA rural development programs that foster local food system development, including the Value-Added Producers Grant Program and the Rural Microenterprise Assistance Program.

Expand incentives for farmers to produce more sustainable, organic, and healthy food, especially fruits and vegetables.

  • Include mandatory funding for the USDA’s National Organic Certification Cost Share Program.
  • Include and increase mandatory funding for the USDA’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, with a specific share dedicated to local and regional food systems.
  • Provide farmers who participate in USDA commodity programs greater flexibility to also grow fruits and vegetables for sale in local or regional markets.

Improve and expand the “safety net” of credit and risk management tools to support farmers who are engaged in sustainable and diversified practices.

  • Expand and improve federal crop insurance programs to provide “whole farm revenue” insurance for diversified farms that produce healthy foods and utilize sustainable farming practices.
  • Remove financial barriers to the production of organic food by allowing federally subsidized crop insurance policies to pay out at organic prices, and by eliminating insurance surcharges for organic producers.
  • Improve and expand federal lending opportunities for farmers who grow food for local and regional markets, through changes to the USDA’s Business & Industry Loan Program, Community Facilities Program, and Rural Business Opportunity Grant Program.
  • At the same time, decrease perverse incentives for unhealthy food production by reducing USDA subsidies for commodity and crop insurance programs.

Increase farmers’ adoption of sustainable agriculture and conservation practices

As the demands and pressures on our agriculture system increase, conservation practices are critically important to achieving a system that produces abundant healthful food, minimizes environmental damage, and ensures a robust resource base for future farmers. Greater support is needed for farmers to implement conservation practices and adopt sustainable production systems, such as organic agriculture, that can be highly productive while also protecting our air and water. Specifically, the next Farm Bill should:

Provide greater investments to help farmers implement conservation measures and adopt science-based sustainable production practices and systems.

  • Include robust mandatory funding for the USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the premiere working lands conservation programs.
  • Improve CSP by increasing the national average per-acre payment, increasing the minimum contract payment for farmers, and adopting a new ranking system that is based solely on an application’s total environmental benefit.
  • Improve EQIP by eliminating payment caps for organic farmers, retaining organic production assistance, reducing payment limits to encourage broader program participation, and structuring payments to support sustainable livestock production, such as pasture beef and dairy. Prevent support for polluting operations by not allowing EQIP funds to support the development of new CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) and minimizing payments overall to existing facilities.
  • Improve conservation programs to encourage greater adoption of sustainable crop production practices, with a specific emphasis on the use of cover crops, longer and more complex crop rotations, and perennial crops.

Develop rules that ensure farmers who receive federal subsidies employ minimum conservation measures and limit their use of environmentally destructive farming practices.

  • Establish conservation compliance requirements for all recipients of federal crop and revenue insurance subsidies.

Ramp up publicly-funded research to enable an economically robust and sustainable agriculture and food system

The challenges that today’s farmers face—including global warming and the need to boost food production sustainably—are unprecedented. Overcoming these challenges will demand new approaches that place agriculture in the context of larger ecosystems and address environmental problems at the landscape and farm level. Publicly funded research is critically important to helping policy makers, researchers, and farmers better understand the interactions of the natural systems that support farming; and to developing and refining appropriate technologies and practices. Therefore, the next Farm Bill should:

Develop and refine innovative sustainable, organic, and diversified production systems, ease farmers’ transitions to such systems, and increase understanding of the ecosystems that support farming and the impacts of various management practices.

  • Include mandatory funding for the USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative and its Organic Production and Market Data Initiative.
  • Include funding authorizations for the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Extension Program, and National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.
  • Direct the USDA to devote a greater percentage of funding for internal and grant-funded research related to agroecological farming practices.

Foster the expansion of local and regional food systems, and better document their economic benefits.

  • Direct the USDA to prioritize in-house and grant-funded research related to the development and expansion of local and regional food systems.
  • Develop and provide funding for a new USDA initiative to collect much-needed data and market information related to local and regional food systems.

Increase the diversity of our agriculture system and promote resilience in the face of environmental challenges, through public crop and livestock breeding programs and other efforts.

  • Direct the USDA to prioritize internal and grant funded research related to the development and expansion of local and regional food systems.
  • Develop and provide funding for a new USDA initiative to collect much-needed data and market information related to local and regional food systems. 

For more information, contact Daniel Brito at DBrito@ucsusa.org or 202-331-6949.

We Need Your Support
to Make Change Happen

We can transform the U.S. agricultural system to prioritize investments in healthy foods and farms —but not without you. Your generous support helps develop science-based solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.