Congressional Conference on the Farm Bill: What is at Stake for Food Waste?

Monday, August 13, 2018

With the U.S. Senate voting on July 31 to join the House of Representatives in conference on their respective Farm Bills, the two houses face major challenges to resolve the wide gaps in many elements. Reauthorized every 5 years or so, the Farm Bill is a comprehensive piece of legislation that affects all facets of the American food supply. We highlight the gaps between the House and Senate bills in new and continuing provisions promoting the reduction of wasted food, the reuse of edible food, and recycling of food waste. Representing a mere rounding error in the budget, they have been understandably overshadowed by the conflicts over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which dominates the budget.

In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) committed to a goal of reducing food waste by 50% through 2030. This goal was motivated by the fact that in the United States, an estimated 40% of food produced – over $200 billion worth – is wasted each year. Over 60 million tons of our food is wasted.

In a prior column, one of us opined that it could be challenging to hold onto past levels of support for bioenergy programs recycling food waste, much less to make progress on the food waste agenda. The good news is that the Senate bill does introduce new elements to support the reduction, reuse and recycling of food waste, including new studies on food waste reduction and biogas development, as well as food recovery and spoilage prevention, and liability protections; however, for the most part, these elements are missing from the House version. In addition, the Senate bill essentially maintains the past level of mandatory funding for energy title programs supporting the recycling of food waste through anaerobic digestion and the production of renewable natural gas fuels; in contrast, the House bill eliminates the Energy title, moving most of the energy programs into its Rural Infrastructure and Economic Development title and dropping all mandatory funding.

Three continuing programs are most relevant for recycling food waste through anaerobic digestion and creating biofuels from the biogas. The Senate Bill maintains the current law’s mandatory funding of $50 million annually for the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), which provides “loan financing and grant funding to agricultural producers and rural small businesses” who are taking the initiative to install renewable energy systems.

Capitol BuildingThe Senate Bill also extends the Biorefinery Assistance program through 2023, with mandatory funding of $100 million in 2019 and $50 million in 2020 (no mandatory funding is allocated after 2020). This important program helps promote technological advancement in biofuels, renewable chemicals and other biobased products and the incorporation of these technologies into new and existing biorefinery facilities.

Similarly, the Senate’s bill maintains the current law’s mandatory annual funding level of $15 million for the Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels (BPAB). BPAB is important for minimizing food waste and creating clean energy because it provides funding for production of biogas and biofuel derived from food waste material, vegetable oil, animal fats and other cellulosic biomasses.

A new program only in the Senate’s bill, the Carbon Utilization Education Program stipulates that USDA administrators must allocate grant funding to biogas producers in order to sponsor educational initiatives to introduce food waste into their biogas systems. The Bill allocates $1 million in mandatory funding annually, through 2023, for this purpose.

In further effort to “accelerate biogas research and investment in cost-effective biogas systems,” the Senate’s bill calls for the creation of an Interagency Biogas Opportunities Task Force made up of staff from USDA, EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The task force’s duties include both extending financing and researching private funding opportunities for biogas in the United States.  The Senate also calls for a “study on biogas” to be conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in order to optimize “biogas systems, including methods to obtain the highest energy output from biogas, including through the use of co-digestion.”

New elements focused specifically on food waste in the Senate bill includes the creation of an annual study on food waste conducted by USDA and submitted to Congress. This report will include estimates of the quantity of food waste produced and the key factors in food waste creation. USDA will also be required to make and report recommendations for food waste reduction based on this study.

To help reduce waste and put edible food on the tables of those who need it most, the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) provisions in the Senate’s bill increase funding to $23 million in 2019 and $35 million annually from 2020 to 2023 for the “harvesting, processing, or packaging of unharvested, unprocessed, or unpackaged commodities donated by agricultural producers, processors, or distributors for use by emergency feeding organizations” with the key goal of reducing “food waste at the agricultural production, processing, or distribution level.” Additionally, the Senate’s bill calls for USDA to provide guidance on best practices for minimizing food waste. While the House’s bill increased mandatory TEFAP funding from $15 million to $60 million annually, it does not include the provision requiring the USDA to provide guidance on minimizing food waste.

The Senate Bill’s Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP) provides for development grants to entities promoting “new business opportunities and marketing strategies to reduce on-farm food waste.” $60 million in Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) funding is allocated for LAMP in 2019 an each following fiscal year. In a further effort to reduce food waste, the Bill outlines plans for pilot projects to reduce community food waste and increase composting efforts. The Bill would require administrators to propose cooperative agreements with governments in at least ten states in order to “develop and test strategies for planning and implementing municipal compost plans and food waste reduction plans.” These pilot projects would strategize ways to increase compost generation, reduce and limit fertilizer use, improve soil quality, and reduce food waste by diverting it from landfills. The Bill would set aside $25 million annually to carry out these pilot projects.

The Senate’s bill also includes Food Donation Standards, requiring USDA to provide “guidance to promote awareness of donations of apparently wholesome food,” which are protected under the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act. Moreover, the Dairy Product Donation Program, which expires in 2018, is replaced by the Milk Donation Program with the goal of reducing food waste and “providing nutritional assistance to individuals in low-income groups.” The Senate’s bill will provide $8 million in CCC funding during 2019 and afterwards, $5 million annually through 2020. Both versions of the bill include a Specialty Crop Research Initiative and maintain its funding, but the Senate’s version includes the addition of spoilage prevention measure to “improve and extend the storage life of specialty crops.”

Even though the Senate’s bill is promising for its food waste reduction measures, important provisions were left out. These missed opportunities include standardized food labeling, and establishment of an Office of Food Waste Reduction to facilitate nationwide food waste initiatives.

With many provisions of the 2014 Farm Bill set to expire, Congress has until September 30th to come to agreement on the contents of the respective 2018 bills. While there is bipartisan support for the Bill in the Senate, a sharp partisan divide exists in the House over the changes to SNAP and the funding of energy provisions. We will see whether a bill emerges from conference committee this year that resolves the SNAP gaps and keeps food on the tables of America’s low-income families, reduces waste and promotes clean energy.