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US: "House Farm Bill misses opportunity to move agriculture forward"

On Friday, May 17, the House Agriculture Committee released the long-awaited Farm, Food, and National Security Act of 2024 (FFNSA). The 942 page discussion draft arrived just six days ahead of an expected Committee markup on May 23.

"The Farm, Food, and National Security Act fundamentally fails to meet the moment. The bill dramatically increases subsidies yet takes no meaningful steps toward building a fair, responsible, and accessible farm safety net. It stubbornly dismisses climate change – in part by decoupling the climate-focus from conservation investments – while countless farmers and ranchers nationwide experience the worsening impacts of a changing climate. And although the bill reflects some lessons from the pandemic, its vision for the future of local and regional food systems is stunted," said Mike Lavender, NSAC Policy Director.

Unfortunately, the FFNSA moves funding between farm bill titles and simultaneously relies on at least two provisions to generate additional funding. The bill restricts the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from using the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) to address emerging agricultural issues, instead requiring USDA to receive Congressional approval for any use of the CCC. The provision rests on the assumption of at least $45 billion in savings. However, that massively overestimates the cost savings this ill-advised restriction would create. The bill also requires that much-needed future updates to the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP) – on which Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are based – be budget neutral. This would amount to a roughly $27 billion cut over a decade, drastically reducing support for the tens of millions of people facing food insecurity.

"This bill appears to rely on several wrongheaded provisions which, absent a public CBO score, generate dubious savings that are in turn used to underwrite a bill that does not deliver meaningful improvements to our food and farm system. From the beginning, NSAC and its more than 150 members nationwide have called for a farm bill that incorporates lessons learned since 2018 by advancing programs and policies that build resilience and equity, restore competition, invest in science, and renew our environment for current and future generations. The Farm, Food, and National Security Act falls short of that mark," commented Lavender.

The following are select provisions based on NSAC's initial analysis of the full text of the Farm, Food, and National Security Act of 2024.

Title 1 – Commodities

  • Dramatically raises subsidies for commodity production, including a 10 to 20 percent increase to Price Loss Coverage program reference prices and a bump to revenue guarantees under the Agriculture Risk Coverage program. These reforms ignore that reference prices will already increase this year and could cost up to $50 billion despite primarily benefiting just 0.3 percent of farmers. This is paired with alarming provisions that erode existing (if loophole-ridden) Title I payment limits and the Adjusted Gross Income means test through exemptions and adjustments for inflation, rather than incorporate common-sense reforms to guarantee that only working farmers benefit from taxpayer dollars. (Sec. 1101, 1103, 1105, 1604, 1605, 11005, 11006)

Title 2 – Conservation

  • Rescinds all available Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) funding, reallocating it to conservation programs without the original climate change mitigation requirements. Making permanent, long-term investments in conservation programs is the right move for this Farm Bill, but stripping away IRA's climate guardrails is not. Farmers have voted with their program applications, and less than half of the farmers interested in dedicated climate funding in conservation programs were able to access it this year. NSAC is disappointed to see this unnecessary revocation of sound, popular climate policy. (Sec. 2501, 2502)
  • Despite important yet unverified increases to the Conservation Stewardship Programs (CSP) baseline funding (Sec. 2501), FFNSA siphons off CSP's limited funding for a new grant program supporting states and tribes administering soil health programs. (Sec. 2303). While NSAC has championed providing federal support for state and tribal soil health programs, the Chairman's iteration of that idea is a non-starter. Currently, only 30% of farmers applying to CSP can secure contracts. It makes little sense to stretch limited resources within such a popular program across new purposes and sub programs. Doing so would only ensure that farmers interested in CSP continue to get left behind. Placing a state and tribal soil health assistance program in CSP makes even less sense because conservation programs, such as the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), are already designed to provide federal support for conservation work led by non-federal partners. NSAC hopes that Congress can ultimately see the wisdom of funding state and tribal soil health programs through RCPP, as proposed in the Rural Prosperity and Food Security Act in the Senate.
  • Includes a substantial and detrimental rewrite of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The Chairman's proposal fundamentally damages CRP's ability to address environmental concerns generally, and water quality concerns specifically. It also removes the guiding purpose of ensuring farmland is usable by the next generation. By focusing on soil classification and minimizing the significance of environmental challenges on our agricultural landscapes, the FFNSA would dramatically shift the footprint of CRP acreage across the country and halt years of progress in states that have utilized the program successfully. (Sec. 2101)
  • Dramatically increases support for precision agriculture technologies. NSAC recognizes that precision agriculture has demonstrable benefits for some operations, yet it remains a relatively high-cost conservation solution that does not serve all farmers. Conservation program funding is limited, and providing overly robust support for practices unsuitable for all operations leads to a small set of farms consuming an outsized portion of program resources. This is an irresponsible use of limited government funding, especially when there are size- and scale-neutral management alternatives that serve far more farmers and deliver greater environmental benefits per dollar spent. NSAC calls on Congress to consider a more fair and balanced approach to supporting precision agriculture in this farm bill. (Sec. 2202, 2204, 2302).

Title 4 – Nutrition

  • Takes a different approach to sustaining catalytic local and regional food supply chain investments than the Senate proposal. Rather than providing funding for localized food procurement that effectively targets a wide range of producers as in the existing Local Food Purchase Assistance Program, the FFNSA creates a new competitive food box pilot program that caps the number of awards, and as a result, immediately limits the ability for hyper local solutions. However, a number of program parameters prioritize organizations with experience, demonstrated partnerships, and a track record of purchasing from small and local producers. It is unclear whether these directives will prevent another iteration of the underwhelming Farmers to Families Food Box program. (Sec. 4302)
  • Provides modest funding increases to popular local food access initiatives such as the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program and the Community Food Projects Program, but at the expense of individuals nationwide who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Apparently, savings from the proposed SNAP cuts have been used to increase funding for the Emergency Food Assistance Program and other commodity distribution programs. This puts additional burdens on families to access nutrition support from designated participating locations rather than empowering them at their local farmers' markets or grocery stores. (Sec. 4201, 4118, 4119, 4202, 4204)

Title 5 – Credit

  • Includes several provisions that would help producers access capital, including authorization for USDA to restructure guaranteed loan debt, a reduced experience requirement and pre-approval pilot for farm ownership loans, and shifting the burden of proof from farmers onto USDA when appealing a denial. It also increases the limits for direct operating, farm ownership, and microloans. It does not, however, raise the total funding authorization that would create room for USDA to make and guarantee these bigger loans. Troublingly, the bill exempts the Farm Credit System from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's Rule 1071, which requires lenders to report demographic information, despite widespread opposition to this exemption. (Sec. 5102, 5103, 5019, 5110, 5202, 5503, 5402, 112205)

Title 6 – Rural Development

  • Includes the Food Supply Chain Guaranteed Loan Program. Yet, without defined priorities or target recipients, the program may inevitably lend itself to financing large-scale operations rather than serve as a new capital product for small, scaling, or new local operations. (Sec. 6304)
  • Reauthorizes several longstanding, small but impactful rural development programs, such as the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program, Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas, Rural Business Development Grants, and Rural Cooperative Development Grants. However, there are few reforms offered to increase accessibility for these programs or to provide sufficient investment much needed in rural economies. (Sec. 6422, 6314, 6410, 6411)

Title 7 – Research

  • While it meets the low bar of reauthorizing popular sustainable and organic research programs like the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program and the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), FFNSA does not include additional funding for either program. As USDA's only farmer-driven, sustainable agriculture competitive research grant program, SARE provides farmers and researchers with vital opportunities to better understand agricultural systems, increase profitability, and build resilience to climate change. OREI is one of a still limited number of research, education, and extension programs that support organic systems. Strong investments in research underpin growth in any sector, as all farmers – sustainable, organic, conventional, or otherwise – rely on cutting-edge research to maintain robust and thriving operations. (Sec. 7201, 7205)
  • Provides important investments in 1890s Institutions, including increasing mandatory funding for the 1890s Scholarship program to $100 million until expended, increasing funding for 1890s Extension from its current 20 percent to no less than 40 percent, and increasing the number of 1890 Centers of Excellence from no less than 3 to no less than 8. (Sec. 7111, 7114, 7208)
  • The focus on precision agriculture and automation detracts from much needed investments in farmer-led, scale-appropriate research. While we support research that directly contributes to "a reduction in, or improved efficiency of, inputs used in crop or livestock production the concern," it is clear that the prevailing narrative surrounding automation and precision agriculture research is aimed not at improving diversified systems, but at enabling industrial-scale monoculture agriculture to perpetuate. This approach is misguided given the ample evidence that scale-neutral, management-intensive practices likely yield even greater environmental benefits. USDA funding should be directed toward building an understanding of the ecological aspects of our food and farm systems and integrating the diverse knowledge and practices of agroecological farmers and farm workers, rather than continuing to explore and promote the narrow constraints of industrial-scale monoculture. (Sec. 7125, 7204, 7208, 7305, 7503)
  • Reauthorizes the Food Safety Outreach Program (FSOP), though declines to increase funding; FSOP continues to be critically important for farmers as many new food safety rules are still being finalized in the coming years between farm bills. (Sec. 7301)
  • Expands the scope of existing programs to support some meat processing workforce development, but without changing their funding levels, and primarily at institutions of higher education instead of community-driven apprenticeship models. (Sec. 7503, 7123).

Title 11 – Crop Insurance

  • Fails to meet the moment with meaningful reforms that would alleviate bureaucratic red tape and streamline access to crop insurance for the small, diversified, and direct-to-consumer farmers and ranchers who are left behind. It requires an annual review of challenges to access Whole-Farm Revenue Protection, but those barriers and corresponding solutions are already well-documented – including in a USDA-contracted study already required by the 2018 Farm Bill. (Sec. 11015)
  • Expands premium discounts offered to beginning and veteran farmers; however, this will have minimal impact if it is not paired with more foundational reforms to streamline paperwork and address the disincentive that agents experience to sell insurance to small and diversified farms. Private insurance companies would see a considerable infusion of public dollars under this bill, including $50 million in "relief." Yet even incentives to insure added specialty crop plans are poised to serve only industrial specialty crop farms. (Sec. 11008, 11010)
  • Rather than meaningfully expanding access to the farm safety net, the bill enhances insurance benefits for commodity farms enrolled in a highly-subsidized supplemental product by raising its coverage, increasing its premium discounts, and lowering the threshold of loss necessary to claim a payout. While it requires some producers to choose between the sweetened insurance or Title I benefits, non-cotton producers may still benefit from both supplemental insurance and the Price Loss Coverage program. (Sec. 11005, 11006)

Title 10 – Horticulture

  • Includes a variety of bipartisan provisions that improve access and program offerings for local and regional food system networks, particularly through the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Programs and the Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production. While these reforms would increase the accessibility of these popular programs, tailor technical assistance, and expand investment options for essential equipment, no additional funding is offered to meet the staggering demand. (Sec. 10102, 10004)
  • Contains inadequate overall support for organic despite some elements of the Organic Transition Initiative being included. Giving the National Organic Program (NOP) the authority to provide technical assistance to support transition with no additional funding for TA will increase the burden on an already underfunded program. Moreover, the exclusion of the Organic Market Development Grant Program and a lack of necessary improvements to NOP to promote a more transparent and predictable process for developing organic standards is unacceptable. Additional funding to provide technical assistance, education, and outreach to certified organic farmers and farmers transitioning to organic certification is critical for the continued growth of organic systems that emphasize soil health and help farmers and ranchers increase resilience to the impacts of climate change. (Sec. 10105)

Title 12 – Miscellaneous

  • Provides limited funding for grants and resources for small- to medium-sized meat and poultry processors to expand processing capacity through equipment upgrades. The already limited funding is made even less accessible by including state departments of agriculture and public land grant universities as eligible entities, despite these entities often already having these facilities or the budgetary capacity to pursue them. This draft does not recognize the continued need for this kind of capacity-building, and that it is best targeted towards those rural and underserved communities that most need processing expansion. (Sec 6305, Sec 12112)
  • While FFNSA does provide for further outreach to state departments of agriculture regarding the Cooperative Interstate Shipping Program, it does not change the federal cost share for that program or the state meat and poultry inspection programs – both of which are key changes needed for the federal food safety regulations to better work with and regulate small and very small meat processors. (Sec. 12113)
  • Opens new, potentially anti-competitive methods of ownership that might directly counteract the benefits of other investments in the bill. Including the A-Plus Act (Sec. 12111) would likely create more vertically integrated markets, where the stockyard is also the only meat processing operation in an area.

For more information:
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

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