Written by Ricardo Salvador, 2023 OEFFA Conference Keynote
The upcoming reauthorization of the farm bill will be the 23rd iteration of this legislation. According to Jonathan Coppess and Chris Adamo—Vermont Law School teachers of a course on the “modern farm bill”—this version could be revolutionary. They see the main driver of this potential departure being the role agriculture could play in mitigating climate change.
A Push for Business As Usual—But a Need for Something New
A problem with this otherwise sensible prediction is that it would require genuine change in farm practices and the policies that incentivize and support the structure of farming.
Already, the incoming chair of the House Agriculture Committee is on record stating that he “will not have us suddenly incorporate buzzwords like regenerative agriculture into the farm bill or overemphasize climate.” The president of the Iowa Farm Bureau—the most influential state chapter of the powerful national federation—wants the bill to stay the same, and continue to distribute public largesse without any expectation that it will return verifiable environmental benefits.
Of greatest concern is that in its recent announcements of nearly $3 billion in “climate smart commodity” awards, the USDA has amply demonstrated that the politics of farm country and agribusiness will dilute the Department’s ability to promote and support effective climate change action through agriculture.
There is a scientific component to this, but the most important factor is political. A patchwork of “climate friendly” voluntary practices used during any given production year will have limited ability to reverse greenhouse gas contributions—regardless of farmers’ positive intent. For this sector to meaningfully reverse its emissions, the massive changes in land use and row-crop and livestock production that are needed can only be brought about by the wide-reaching legislative power of the farm bill.
Revolutionary Farm Bills Throughout History
This brings us to the Coppess and Adamo analysis. On their telling, there have only been three truly revolutionary farm bills. They define these as legislation that completely shifted the direction of farm policy.
The most recent was the disastrous “Freedom to Farm” bill of 1996. It attempted to eliminate farm subsidies through a transitional program, but instead led to the consolidation of farmland into larger operations, and the failure and displacement of thousands of family farms. The system of government support was rapidly restored in the subsequent 2002 Farm Bill.
The first farm bill in 1933 was revolutionary precisely because it recognized the government’s essential role in agriculture: to manage the market for agricultural products in a way that farmers could not accomplish on their own. Farmers, and all of U.S. society, have lived since then with the reality of the determinative role of government programs in farming. All farm bill debates have largely been about whom and what to support with this massive public intervention (the current bill is a $428 billion package of tax dollars).
This brings up the remaining revolutionary farm bill, and a lesson for how to break the impasse created by powerful organizations and corporate interests dependent on government support—and which therefore have a stake in shaping and controlling “status quo” farm bills. The 1985 Food Security Act expanded the traditional interest groups vying for public tax dollars by bringing in the anti-hunger community.
This is what Coppess and Adamo identify as the beginning of the “modern” farm bill era, since the “Farm Bill Coalition” created to pass that bill has not only persisted, but the new “nutrition programs” they sponsored have become the lion’s share of the bill, capturing 76.1 percent of the most recent farm bill spending. The “farm side” and “nutrition side” need one another to be politically viable. And this is the ultimate lesson that Coppess and Adamo drew: it is all about the coalitions you bring to the debate.
Shaking Up the Status Quo
At the Union of Concerned Scientists, we have been working with a large number of partners, including OEFFA, to shape a new, broader coalition for the farm bill debate. By definition, a status quo approach to the farm bill begins with the existing legislation as a template, and is about making minimal adjustments.
A transformational approach calls for us to ask what we need from a 21st century food system, and to then craft that legislation without the constraints of programs designed to answer different questions from a different era.
The new coalition is led by the notion that many have a stake, in particular groups representing large communities historically excluded from shaping farm and food policy. We see the bill as a vehicle to center the racial justice issues accounting for farming being a dominantly white occupation, with the labor side of the farm and food system being a conspicuously Brown and Black work force.
This is why the coalition marks the return of the labor sector, which was an essential partner with farmers—as a grassroots, working-class coalition—in shaping the original agricultural policies embedded in the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act.
No matter your perspective, we can agree this is indisputably a transformational approach to the traditional “farm bill debate.” Accordingly, the coalition’s priority demands are seen as a package, a set of issues so interrelated they cannot be effectively addressed by breaking them apart. They are:
- Center racial justice
- End hunger
- Meet the climate crisis head on
- Increase access to nutritious food
- Ensure safety and dignity for food and farm workers
- Protect farmers and consumers
- Ensure the safety of our food supply
All of us who are involved are pragmatic, and understand this approach is a long shot. This is because of powerful entrenched interests (the agribusiness lobby is larger than the defense lobby), and not because this suite of issues is not well-framed, urgent, and relevant to the times in which we live.
The status quo interests have vulnerabilities, key among which is the difficulty they will have in making the straight-faced argument that they need more of the lavish public support that has led to historical farm profits and farmland values. Coppess, who has authored what I consider to be the landmark book on the farm bill’s history, has been warning Midwest farm groups that the sailing might not be smooth for the “bipartisan approach” (code word for status quo) that such groups would like to see in the bill.
At the upcoming OEFFA conference, we will discuss the prospects, strategy, and progress of this transformational campaign, and the key role that OEFFA can play in advancing this work. After all, the farm bill is legislation in which every person in the nation has a stake, and no effort to take part in the farm bill process can be credible without the genuine and active participation of farmer groups.
Ricardo Salvador is an agronomist and the director and senior scientist of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. His keynote address, A Transformational Idea for the 2023 Farm Bill, will take place on Saturday, February 18 at the 2023 OEFFA Conference. Learn more about OEFFA’s 2023 Farm Bill Platform.