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This Is America’s Food Policy—This Is the 2018 Farm Bill

Wednesday, December 19, 2018
Caitlin F. McCarthy

Caitlin F. McCarthy

Director, Education, Associates and Corporate Partnerships

“Our nation's food security depends on strong agricultural policy that provides stability for America's farmers and ranchers; protects our land and natural resources; develops new trade opportunities while leveling the playing field for our producers; strengthens rural communities; and helps Americans of all stripes access the nutritious foods they need to keep their families healthy. This is America's food policy. This is the Farm Bill.” (The House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture)

The comprehensive, $867 billion 2018 Farm Bill was passed in Congress on December 11, 2018, with bipartisan support. Examining the 2018 Farm Bill through the lens above, a variety of noteworthy changes and reauthorizations emerge that will guide agricultural policy and law throughout the United States for the next five years. Global, national, regional, and local impacts can be expected, as the Farm Bill seeks to provide stability for farmers and ranchers, protect land and natural resources, foster economic success in an uncertain time for global trade, strengthen rural communities, and increase food security and access. 

Land and Natural Resources

The 2018 Farm Bill is largely similar to the 2014 Farm Bill, and overall, it supports to varying degrees healthy working lands, water quality, wildlife protection, and natural resources.

Farming

This year’s bill preserves current conservation measures, especially the use of cover crops and soil health measures. Proven successful components of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)—including performance payments for maintaining and improving the quality of soil, water, air, and wildlife habitat and for energy conservation—will be incorporated into the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which provides funding and technical assistance for efforts that improve the same components of CSP. The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program will continue to finance forested riparian buffers, which will benefit efforts around the country and especially for reducing pollution into the Chesapeake Bay.

Data Universal Numbering System and System for Award Management registration requirements for agriculture producers were eliminated after being deemed “unnecessary and burdensome.”

Floated provisions to roll back pesticides regulation—including a particularly attention-grabbing measure to circumvent the current process of assessing how listed endangered species would be affected by a potential pesticide, which would have allowed EPA to approve pesticides without these considerations—were also left out of the final bill.

Fairly forward-thinking carbon and climate measures are likewise included in the final bill. These provisions include practices for rural community carbon capture projects, drought resiliency, renewable energy, energy efficiency, among others. The Biomass Crop Assistance Program was reauthorized, though mandatory funding has been removed. The Rural Energy for America Program, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy storage technologies will all be funded, albeit less than in the 2014 Farm Bill.

Capturing national attention, the 2018 Farm Bill legalizes the production of hemp for commercial uses and removes hemp from the Controlled Substances Act. Beyond essentially transferring hemp regulation and enforcement from the Drug Enforcement Agency to USDA, the bill also continues the successful Hemp Pilot Programs, first introduced in the 2014 Farm Bill. Experts are already estimating that by 2022, hemp could potentially be a $20 billion industry. Environmentally, hemp requires very little water compared to other crops, can grow in debilitated soil, and is weed-resistant.

Trade

Escalating tariffs, especially between China and the United States, have focused in part on the most lucrative crops in the United States: corn, soybeans, and wheat. Last year, China imported $24 billion in U.S. agriculture products, mostly corn, soybeans, and wheat. Pressure put on Congress by farmers and ranchers facing exponential declines in commodities prices has therefore prompted the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, which reauthorizes and bolsters the Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC). ARC and PLC offer assistance for farmers and ranchers as a nationwide safety net measure, funding market development measures, offering assistance to those facing severe drought, and retaining legal authority for the USDA “secretary to provide financial assistance to farmers and ranchers affected by unfair foreign trading practices.”

Rural Communities

At the center of lingering disputes in the 2018 Farm Bill are family subsidies. This year’s farm bill has expanded federal subsidies to include extended family members of farmers—including cousins, nephews, nieces, etc.—even if such people do not directly work on the farm. Some expressed disappointment, reiterating that subsidies should be going to those who actually farm. Others argued that such a measure will incentivize younger generations to continue farming as a profession. In addition, the current farm bill provides some funding for organizations training younger and emerging farmers, veteran farmers, and minority farmers.

The 2018 Farm Bill also provides permanent funding for farmers markets and other local food initiatives, research funding for organic agriculture, and for providing high-speed internet in rural communities.

Food Security and Access to Nutritious Foods

“Whether it is farm to table or field to fork, Americans have options when it comes to the food we eat. Options that provide us with unparalleled variety and access to the lowest cost food in the world.”

In 2017, over 40 million Americans faced food insecurity—struggling with options, variety, and access—despite living in a country determined to have the lowest cost food in the world. The foremost policy tool used to combat food insecurity, and a key feature of the 2018 Farm Bill, is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which assists economically disadvantaged individuals and families as a domestic hunger safety net.

With 30-40% of food grown in the United States going to waste—with 25% of freshwater, 31% of cropland, and 30% of the fertilizer applied to crops for food that is never consumed—the bipartisan support of the 2018 Farm Bill and its reauthorization of SNAP was crucial. Despite earlier reports of potential significant changes to SNAP—including stricter work requirements for individuals benefitting from SNAP, pre-selected USDA Foods packages, among others—Congress passed the Farm Bill without such forecasted alterations. Overall, the new bill has reauthorized and moderately strengthened SNAP, including a handful of revisions that are not projected to significantly restrict benefits for SNAP users. These include the prevention of receiving SNAP benefits in multiple states simultaneously, and an elimination of a federal funding awards programs for high-performing states using SNAP, with these funds being redirected to various SNAP programs and measures, among others.

Conclusion

The 2018 Farm Bill seeks to provide strong agricultural policy, provide stability for America's farmers and ranchers, protect U.S. land and natural resources, develop new trade opportunities, level the playing field for agricultural producers, strengthen rural communities, and help Americans access nutritious foods and reduce food insecurity for the next half decade. This is America's food policy, and this is the 2018 Farm Bill.