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Farming through the farm bill

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white barn and silo on a farm

Food stamps, land conservation, and agriculture subsidies are all regulated by the farm bill, which Congress reexamines and passes nearly every five years. The last farm bill passed, the Agriculture Act of 2014, authorized more than $950 billion in US spending over a 10-year period.

Despite its hefty price tag and far-reaching implications for the food that we eat, jobs, nutrition, and more, the farm bill remains under-engaged by academics and the general public. To counter this, demystify the bill's complexities, and deepen knowledge of its many impacts, the Global Environmental Politics (GEP) program at the School of International Service and the Berkeley Food Institute will present the Farm Bill 2018: Policy, Politics, and Potential symposium on March 28. The symposium features presentations from a range of scholars, policy-makers, elected officials, and food producers, including former USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, US Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), US Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), and Food Fight author Daniel Imhoff.

In anticipation of the symposium, we spoke with Professor Garrett Graddy-Lovelace about what's working with the current farm bill and what might lie ahead for the 2018 farm bill.

The farm bill is revisited every five years or so. Since the 2014 farm bill was passed, what have been some advancements, developments, or shortcomings in the agriculture industry that will impact or should be included in the 2018 farm bill?

Many major things are happening in and around the agricultural sector. To some degree, this is expected with such a vast topic as agri-food systems. But, on another level, the changes afoot are unprecedented. Chiefly, climate change is advancing and reaching irrevocable ecological (and thus agricultural) tipping points. Meanwhile, the US government is now run by those denying the very existence of anthropogenic climate change. Frankly, this willful ignorance of ecological science portends grave consequences for policy, people, and planet. Accordingly, it is all the more important and challenging to advocate for farm bill policies and programs that take climate change seriously; and to acknowledge the role of industrial agricultural production in greenhouse gas emissions.

Also: massive mergers. Bayer is buying Monsanto, Dow merges with DuPont, China National Chemical buys Syngenta-all for billions of dollars. This problematic political economy means less options for farmers and consumers, more lobbying power for transnational corporations, more conflict of interest with industry-funded agricultural research, and a further weakening of anti-trust laws.

Finally, farm gate prices are down in the US. Farmers are struggling to make ends meet, even more so than in recent years. "Low commodity prices will batter farm income," announced the USDA itself. Loan defaults, bankruptcies and farm foreclosures are on the rise. This pressures farmers to sell their farms and leave agriculture all together. Only the largest, massive landholders can survive these economic stresses. Overall, this trend will exacerbate consolidation of land in the US and the decline of overall numbers of farmers-including beginner farmers and ranchers, and particularly minority and female growers who face additional obstacles in lending and services.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been a topic of debate for years because of their disruption to the natural agriculture system and proper food labeling for consumers, yet it is estimated that more than 90% of corn, soybeans, and cotton are genetically modified. Why are GMOs so widely used? What could the farm bill do to reduce reliance on GMOs?

Genetically modified organisms saturate the seed market and it is hard to find organic seed, for many reasons. However, the organic industry is booming in the US and causing buyers to look internationally for imports, since domestic production does not meet their needs. Yet, agro-industrial seed industry dominates the seed market, research agendas, and agricultural extension. In order to grow commodity grains (corn, soy) without chemical inputs such as those purchased alongside GMO seeds, investments must be made and farmers must be supported in their transition to non-GMO, organic, and or biodiverse farming systems.

We are a few years into the current farm bill. In terms of policy included in that bill, what is working and what needs improvement?

The Outreach and Assistance for Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers (2501) has been crucial in supporting growers who have borne the brunt of racism, sexism, and classism in agricultural policies and programs for generations. For being such a tiny slice of the farm bill pie, it has been successful in encouraging and facilitating an entry or return to farming, ranching, and community agriculture for African-American, Latino/a, indigenous, immigrant, Asian-American, and women growers and agrarian communities. However, it was halved in 2014 at the same time it was made available to veterans. Adding a large and growing pool of applicants to a shrinking pot of money is unfair and unwise. In general, the competitive grant model of USDA farm bill programs pits communities against each other, thereby undermining collaborations, solidarity, and alliances.

On a more general level, more attention needs to be paid to exploring and enacting policies that help secure a farm gate price that is above the cost of production and that provides a livelihood for growers, and precludes the need for subsidies. This also applies internationally: food aid programs and agricultural trade are oriented toward expanding US market share, which undermines local prices and thus production systems around the world. Ideally, the farm bill needs to emphasize fair trade and food aid reform.

Farm bill 2014 established two new realms of crop insurance supplements: Price Loss Coverage and Agricultural Risk Coverage. On one hand, farmers have never needed insurance more amidst marked ecological and economic volatility. On the other hand, these new programs have operational flaws, as will be discussed in farm bill negotiations. Moreover, they are expensive and they do not actually address long-term agro-ecological resilience to climate change events or economic resilience to world-market price swings and dips. What are viable alternatives to this conventional model? I hope Congress is able to explore this question.

The farm bill was originally introduced in 1933 to stabilize the farming and agriculture market during a time of over production and drought, but has grown extensively and now includes 12 titles and covers everything from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to forestry. In the past, there have been calls to split the farm bill into a farm program bill and a nutrition bill. In terms of the process and structure of the farm bill, what needs improvement? What impact would splitting the bill up have on what and how those bills gets passed?

So much needs improvement. So many instrumental aspects of agriculture are not included in the farm bill, such as labor or antitrust or marine fisheries. The omnibus legislation has functional dysfunctions. That said, attempts to split off Title Four, for instance, would undermine the hard-fought-for alliances that have kept necessary provisions in place all these years, such as rural development programs and farm supports to keep farmers farming and stave off dire rural poverty, as well as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to stave off dire food insecurity, particularly among children. Everyone who has worked on a farm bill knows that it wouldn't pass through the House or Senate if nutrition were separated.

How will a new administration and new Congress impact what's included, cut, or how the farm bill gets passed? Do you think that SNAP may particularly be targeted by a small-government Congress?

Trump recently proposed a $4.7 billion cut to USDA discressionary spending, which hits foreign food aid at a time when 21 million people in the world are suffering outright from famine. It cuts a program that offers food aid for children by providing meals at schools. Domestically, the cuts also hit the US's Women, Infants, and Children program. Also imminent are proposals to block-grant SNAP support, which would leave states to decide support levels and modes. This is a dangerous move across the board, but particularly in Republican and/or broke states. Trump's proposal reduces funding for the Forest Service, for public lands upkeep, and opens the way for selling and privatizing public lands.

Scholars, practitioners, and community leaders need to strategize how to convey the importance and successes of: SNAP benefits; Conservation Title programming; price support policies for agrarian viability; antitrust regulations; research for regenerative, sustainable, biodiverse agriculture; support for local and regional food systems; support for nutritious food production; outreach and support for diverse and historically underserved growers; and rural development programs for cooperatives; among many other programs. These need to be expanded, not left in limbo or slashed in the next farm bill.