The Farm Bill: An Opportunity to Change Our Food System for the Better
The farm bill is a large, multifaceted piece of legislation, renewed by Congress roughly every five years, that shapes federal food and agricultural policy.
The first version of the farm bill passed in 1933, during the Great Depression, and was mostly concerned with helping farmers stay in business when crop prices plummeted. But since then the bill has grown far more complex and comprehensive, with sections addressing everything from international trade in farm products to the nutritional quality of school lunches to the management of our national forests.
The most recent farm bill (which passed in 2014 after a long delay and included both good news and bad news) expires in September 2018. Congress needs to pass a new version before then, or many important programs at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) will be stranded without funding.
Why the farm bill matters (to all of us)
From farm to fork, our food system should be something we are proud of, one that supports farmers, makes healthy food available for everyone, and protects the environment we all depend upon. The farm bill may sound like something only a policy wonk would care about. But with $956 billion in investments, it affects all parts of our food system and touches all of our lives, every day.
Who farmers are, what they grow, how they grow it, who can afford it—the farm bill shapes the answers to these questions and more, with huge implications for our health, our economy, social justice, and the environment.
2018 farm bill priorities
The current version of the farm bill presents both opportunities and threats for food system reform.
Local FARMS: a win-win for farmers and eaters
On the opportunities side, the Local Food and Regional Market Supply (Local FARMS) Act is one that’s too good to waste. This bipartisan proposal, if incorporated into the farm bill, would expand markets for local farmers and make healthy food more affordable and accessible. With new investments to connect farmers with consumers and with institutions like schools, this proposal would help families across the nation—including seniors, veterans, and those in low-income communities—to put fresh, healthy food on their tables.
UCS is working to help ensure that the provisions of the Local FARMS Act make it into the final farm bill.
The chief threat is to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), sometimes called food stamps. The largest budget item in the farm bill, SNAP plays a critical part in the food system, serving as a safeguard that protects families from the consequences of poverty and hunger in hard times. There is overwhelming evidence that SNAP works. In 2014, the program lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty, including 2.1 million children. It’s a smart investment in the nation’s health and well-being.
SNAP dollars also help to stimulate the economy during periods of recession, in both rural and urban areas, with every five dollars in new SNAP benefits generating as much as nine dollars in economic activity. And following economic recovery, the number of people who use SNAP drops as people get back on their feet. Despite these benefits for participants and the nation, some in Congress are pushing changes to SNAP, such as stricter work requirements or mandatory drug testing, that will reduce the program’s effectiveness without providing any substantial benefit.
We support making SNAP stronger so it can allow families to have better choices. This means increasing benefits to ensure participants’ needs are met, continuing to support cost-effective nutrition education programs, and allowing a broader range of food retailers to participate in the program.
More funding for science
We’re working to increase public investment in agricultural research—especially for transformative agroecological research, which according to a 2015 UCS study constitutes a tiny percentage of USDA’s research budget. Such research is vital for making US agriculture more sustainable and resilient, and hundreds of scientists have signed a petition seeking more federal support for it.
Conservation tools for farmers
The farm bill includes several programs that encourage good stewardship of farmland by helping farmers adopt practices that reduce soil damage, fertilizer runoff, and other undesirable impacts. The 2014 farm bill reduced conservation program funding; we’re hoping to reverse that trend this time around, while simultaneously improving support for agricultural practices that promote healthy soil and clean water.
A better safety net
In recent years, UCS has documented the importance of healthy soils for farmers and their communities, as well as the negative (and costly) environmental consequences of the federal crop insurance program. In the 2018 farm bill, we’re seeking to address both issues at once, with crop insurance reforms that maintain a safety net while increasing incentives for soil-building practices that boost farmers’ resilience and save taxpayers money in the long run.
Investing in new farmers
The future success of an equitable food and farm system depends entirely on the success of the next generation of farmers. A recent survey of young farmers showed they are more diverse and more likely to grow healthy foods and practice sustainable methods, but also more in debt, relative to all US farmers. That’s why UCS is advocating for critical programs that provide loans and technical assistance to new farmers and those from historically underserved and socially disadvantaged communities.
Farmers are ready for change
You may be wondering what farmers think about the farm bill. So were we—so we commissioned a poll of farmers in seven states. The verdict was loud and clear: farmers are eager to move their operations in a healthier, more sustainable direction. And they want federal policy to make that transformation easier, not harder.
How you can help
As committed and energized as we are about moving the farm bill toward supporting a healthier, fairer, more sustainable food system, we know it’s going to be an uphill fight. The current system didn’t arise in a vacuum; it serves powerful interests committed to maintaining the status quo. Those interests will have no trouble making their voices heard in Congress—so we must make sure our senators and representatives hear us, too.
Last revised: April 18, 2018