A new, divided Congress will have to take on a new Farm Bill with far-reaching effects
The Congress that convenes next year will feature a Senate with a narrow Democratic majority and a House that, so far, has a slim Republican majority. What’s not clear is how that split in control will affect one of the biggest pieces of legislation on the agenda next year: the Farm Bill.
The massive piece of legislation (the 2018 version cost $428 billion) covers matters including how farmers are protected in case of major losses, SNAP benefits for the food insecure, and policy on environmental and land use issues.
The size and scope of the law that is typically renewed every five years makes it atypical when it comes to politics.
“The Farm Bill is unique in recent history as being a bill that typically has supporters from both parties and opponents from both parties,” said Patrick Westhoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri.
Those murky partisan lines, along with split control of congressional chambers, makes it difficult to predict just how the Farm Bill will play out. Here are some of the bigger issues facing lawmakers as they delve into the massive bill.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
The biggest part of the Farm Bill in terms of dollars is SNAP. The program that replaced food stamps in 2008 is the primary program to help low-income Americans afford food for their families. It made up 75% of the spending in the 2018 Farm Bill.
Even though the exact level of SNAP benefits is changed as prices go up, current inflation is putting a bigger strain on families that rely upon the program.
“This year, benefits are going to average about $6 a person a day for SNAP. So it’s not a program that provides sufficient food purchasing power for people to be able to afford a reasonably decent diet on a sustained basis,” said Ellen Vollinger.
Vollinger, the SNAP director for the Food Research and Action Center, a nonpartisan group that advocates for food programs, said her group is committed to increasing the amount of that benefit and removing barriers that keep people from accessing the programs. And which party is in power doesn’t affect their strategies.
“We do hope that there still is the ability in the country for that traditional, nonpartisan look that no one wants to see a child go hungry. And there is hunger in every community,” she said. “It’s not an urban problem. It’s not a rural problem. It’s a problem everywhere.”
Vollinger said SNAP is a good program and structured well, but it doesn’t go far enough to make sure benefits are adequate and accessible.
Commodities and crop insurance, the heart of the name “Farm Bill”
While most of the spending in the Farm Bill relates to nutrition programs, the heart of the bill is on farming policy, and the big portions of that section relate to commodities and crop insurance.
Commodities policies refer to the price and income support for the farmers who raise crops, like corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice — as well as dairy and sugar. This section also includes provisions on aiding farmers in case of natural disasters like drought, floods and storm damage to crops.
Crop insurance programs subsidize private crop insurance companies whose policies protect farmers against losses either due to low market prices or decrease in harvests.
Inflation, high fertilizer prices and global market insecurity due in part to the Russian invasion of Ukraine are all adding up to a tough year for farmers. And that timing might play out how these issues are addressed in the Farm Bill.
“The current high prices we're experiencing, we have a period right now of very low support to the farm sector from commodity programs,” Westhoff said.
While the last Farm Bill’s policies did account for such possible market and economic changes, there is a lag built in, and the increased benefit won’t kick in for a few years. And Westhoff said that means it will be a more pressing issue in the next Farm Bill.
But who is in charge won’t be the determining factor on how debate over the bill plays out.
“There are always more regional differences than party differences when it comes to commodities,” Westhoff said. “What’s good for Midwestern corn and soybeans may not be good for cotton and peanut production in the South, for example.”
Climate change may be the biggest debate point
“Climate change hasn’t been included in any Farm Bill since the 1990s,” said Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food & Environment Program with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Several environmental, conservation and farming groups plan to use the 2023 Farm Bill as an opportunity to codify significant changes to agriculture policy to help combat the effects of global climate change.
“In the 21st century we can just not afford to have federal legislation on agriculture that doesn’t recognize the reality of climate change and, more importantly, that agriculture both causes important greenhouse gas emissions and can help us mitigate greenhouse gas emissions,” Salvador said.
About 25% of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The primary sources are the production and use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and the production of large numbers of livestock in concentrated areas.
Sustainable agriculture advocates want the Farm Bill to work toward taking more land out of production so it can better absorb and retain carbon that would otherwise go into the atmosphere, as well as incentivize more carbon neutral farming practices.
While most of the Farm Bill may be somewhat protected from partisanship, climate change provisions may not have that benefit.
“Some, especially on the Democratic side of the ledger, might prefer to see some linkage between commodity programs and climate policy as well. But that tends to be not only resisted but actively opposed by folks on the Republican side,” Westhoff said.
But that isn’t stopping groups that believe combating climate change is, or at least ought to be, a nonpartisan issue.
“We believe that the 2023 Farm Bill is going to be one of the occasions where we could get a truly transformational approach to the farm bill, so we are going to be working hard on that,” Salvador said.
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM