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Moooo-ve Over Big Ag: Fresh Farm Bill Ideas for 2018

By: Amanda Mainello, Research and Administrative Intern

April 21, 2017
Center for Food Safety

During my tenure as an intern with CFS, I’ve had the opportunity to research a wide variety of issues pertaining to our food system, such as pollinator health, animal production, and genetic engineering. Recently, I got to attend Farm Bill 2018: Policy, Politics and Potential Symposium, and wanted to share some of what I learned. The American University School of International Service and the Berkeley Food Institute co-hosted this important gathering of activists, academics, scientists and policymakers. Experts from all disciplines and agricultural arenas came together to lay out what issues the next Farm Bill should tackle.

The great news was that overall, various speakers seemed to agree that the next Farm Bill should make efforts to be more inclusive, push back Big Agriculture consolidation, and incentivize environmentally friendly practices.

What does inclusivity have to do with farming?

Our food system depends on many whose sacrifices often go unacknowledged, but a fresh Farm Bill is a chance to change that. Ideally, funds will shift from supporting industrial agriculture towards investing in the wellbeing of rural Americans, minorities, farm workers, and new farmers.

While cities are quickly growing, the rural America that supports our food system is dwindling. Not just in numbers, but in resources as well. Many rural communities lack technical resources, such as internet access and multiple U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offices, but also more essential resources, such as clean water and hospital access. This constricts growth in these areas and encourages communities to disperse. To revitalize these communities, Congress should consider investing in rural county infrastructure development.

Minorities and farm workers are two other groups that, while integral to our food system, are frequently left out of the conversation. The Hopi Indian tribe was one example highlighted at the symposium. Their intrinsic connection with the land inspires communal stewardship with environmentally friendly practices that have been used for generations. Unfortunately, this vision is not always compatible with governmental assistance programs. A key to solving this discrepancy is increasing communication between USDA, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and Indian tribes to explore the successes in Indian country and how to better incorporate their valuable relationship to the land into our food system.

In order to ensure a resilient food system, it’s imperative we educate and invest in the next generation of farmers. Currently, the average age of farmers in America is 60 years-old, so it’s crucial to look at the most effective ways to grow the next generation of farmers who will be stewards of the land and supported by the communities they feed. Some suggestions for how to do this include: forgiving student loans for those studying agricultural sciences, funding new farmer programs that teach sustainable agricultural and business management practices, or moving some assets from financial assistance programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) or the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) away from industrial producers and toward new farmers.

Are our farmers getting what they deserve?

How can American farmers, who work strenuous twelve to fourteen hour work days while in season, be projected to see a nine percent decrease in their farm income from 2016 to 2017? If this forecast is correct, this would reflect a 50% drop from net farm incomes in 2013. Experts suggest this is primarily linked to an increase in commodity crop supply which drives down prices farmers receive. Big agribusiness consolidation has also impeded farmer returns. By buying up smaller producers, larger companies control the production methods all along the supply chain and pressure the smaller producers to “get big or get out.” The result: production values fall and contracted producers become price takers. Solutions proposed at the symposium include: managing crop supply to control prices, investing in independent producers, and dismantling monopolies.

How can we encourage farmers to use environmentally friendly practices?

Industrial agriculture practices are often associated with soil, air and water contamination. Experts are looking for practical ways to incentivize farmers and businesses to incorporate environmentally-friendly practices without burdening them. For one, land-grant university research is supported by government and corporate funding. Corporate funding, not surprisingly, is awarded to projects that can further their agendas and government funding for agriculture research is in peril. Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) and Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) are both on the chopping block for the next Farm Bill. Without these grant programs, researchers will have to halt their projects and innovations from the field of sustainable agriculture will be at a standstill.

This is why some experts are looking for partnerships between private corporations and the government to financially support sustainable agriculture research and practices. If corporations join the cause, they have the power to inspire positive changes all along their supply chain while still supporting their farmer base.

In addition to increasing funding for research and education, some experts suggest incentivizing farmers by altering subsidy and crop insurance programs. Crop insurance is essential, but current programs don’t always support sustainable practices such as cover cropping. Many experts have therefore proposed linking subsidies and insurance returns to farmers with conservation plans that increase biodiversity, support pollinators, or prevent pollution, etc.

As you can see, there is a lot to consider before an October 1st deadline for a new Farm Bill. Experts and advocates are looking for ways to increase the resiliency of the food system in the next Farm Bill. Ultimately, it seems the first step is to improve communication with advocacy organizations, government groups, corporate interests, and most importantly – farmers.

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