Recipe: Turning the House's Lemon of a Farm Bill into Lemonade

by Laurie Ristino

April 25, 2018

Last week, the House Agriculture Committee passed a pock-marked, micro-legislated Farm Bill along strict party lines. It's a shameful goody bag of legislative delights for a few that comes at the expense of the majority of the American people. 

Some lowlights: The bill holds our hungriest Americans hostage by conditioning SNAP benefits (food stamps) on job training (what kind of country withholds food from its citizens?); reduces conservation dollars that are critically needed given the pitiful state of soil health and our waterways; and provides commodity supports to producers who are wealthy and don't need the help. 

Fortunately, unlike the old days, Americans are starting to pay attention to the Farm Bill. Given the opaque and highly consolidated nature of our food system, people are increasingly concerned about how and where their food is produced. And for good reason. The United States is plagued by food-related illnesses, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Millions of Americans are food insecure. Our major water bodies, including the Chesapeake Bay, Gulf of Mexico, and Lake Champlain, are dying from nutrient pollution caused in large part by agricultural run-off.  

As a result, "good food" groups, environmental organizations, and social justice advocates are now peering beneath the misleadingly titled "Farm Bill" and into the omnibus legislation's policy details. That's why instead of critiquing the House bill, which has been done elsewhere, I'm focusing on a framework to help guide passage of a "good food" bill.  

Given the host of social policies that the Farm Bill encapsulates, the legislation screams for a framework approach. Otherwise, we'll just get more legislative mush like the House bill – deep in the weeds while the forest burns. Moreover, as I argued in a previous blog post, the Farm Bill is a failed policy even for its oft-stated purpose – to provide a "farm safety net." The trend in the United States is fewer farmers and fewer farms, and there appears to be no end in sight of consolidation.  

At the outset, the Farm Bill should be reframed as a food security bill for two key reasons. First, farms are only one component of the many areas the omnibus legislation addresses, and second, a food security framing is necessary for our survival given the ever-growing global population and climate change impacts on crop yields.  

"Food security" is generally defined as "a situation that exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs, and food preferences for an active and healthy life." The four pillars of food security – availability, access, utilization, and stability – that support this definition have evolved over decades as a result of the international community's failed attempts to address famine, hunger, and malnutrition. Consequently, food security addresses in a systemic way the elements necessary for a food-secure future, encompassing the idea that both the availability of and access to food must occur over time. In other words, long-term sustainability is a condition of food security. 

Interestingly, way back in the 1990 Farm Bill, the Food, Agriculture, Conservation and Trade Act, Congress defined the term "sustainability." It's a thoughtful definition worth including here:

The term "sustainable agriculture" means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long-term—

(A) satisfy human food and fiber needs;

(B) enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends;

(C) make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls;

(D) sustain the economic viability of farm operations; and

(E) enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

Importantly, this definition reflects the interdependence of human nutrition, farmers' economic and social well-being, and the environment. Integrating this holistic view of agricultural sustainability with the concept of food security to better roadmap human nutritional needs would provide a framework by which Congress could develop and evaluate policy proposals.  

The Farm Bill process is an anachronistic legislative ritual, ill-suited for 21st century realities and needs. A new legislative framework that guides us to a "good food" future is critically necessary. The ingredients for that policy recipe are at our fingertips; we just need the collective will to follow the instructions.

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Also from Laurie Ristino

Laurie Ristino is the inaugural director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School and an associate professor of law.

This Year's Farm Bill Has Huge Environmental Implications

Ristino | Jul 23, 2018 | Environmental Policy

Recipe: Turning the House's Lemon of a Farm Bill into Lemonade

Ristino | Apr 25, 2018 | Environmental Policy

Kneecapping CERCLA Won't Get Rid of Air Pollution from Ag

Ristino | Mar 13, 2018 | Environmental Policy

Is the Farm "Safety Net" Safe?

Ristino | Feb 08, 2018 | Environmental Policy

Farm Bill 2018: Down Payment on an Effective Conservation Title

Ristino | Jan 17, 2018 | Environmental Policy

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