Politics of Poverty

Three steps to make the Farm Bill work for people and the planet

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Farmers in the U.S. and around the world have always faced daunting challenges; climate change is increasing the risks and problems. The federal Farm Bill can help build resilience and resources around food production and security. Photo: Krailath

As Congress considers what should go in the next Farm Bill, we ask: How can we tackle the real challenges facing us in the years ahead? From domestic food insecurity to the devastating impacts of climate change, there's a lot to take on.

Once every five years, Congressional Agriculture Committees gear up for the reauthorization of the Farm Bill. The reauthorization process of this behemoth bill provides Congress with the opportunity to take a hard look across major farm, food and nutrition programs funded by the U.S. government.

This time, the view is discouraging. The reauthorization process is happening at a moment that sees persistent domestic food insecurity, heightened uncertainty in global agriculture markets, and historic levels of humanitarian needs. Looming over these immediate challenges is the threat of climate change and the impacts it is already having on agriculture-reducing crop yields, increasing risks, and making farming more challenging.

These are real challenges, both domestic and global, that Farm Bill programs have a role in addressing. In the face of global hunger and compounding crises, three areas demand particular attention.

1. Protect international food aid programs

Acute hunger has spiked in recent years. As many as 110 million people across 30 of the world’s most food-insecure countries will require food assistance by 2024-including Yemen, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. The U.S. has responded to the global food crisis with enormous generosity, providing more than $6.7 billion in aid to the worst-affected countries.

Existing international food aid programs authorized in the Farm Bill (such as Food for Peace) have played a significant role providing critical support for people in desperate need. These programs need to be protected and expanded.

Oxfam has worked for years to strengthen these programs (created in the 1950s), making them more flexible, responsive, and fit for purpose. The current food aid program provides assistance for both emergency and development purposes, and includes specific provisions that allow some funding (up to 20 percent currently) for complementary activities to food aid distribution (for example, malnutrition and health monitoring for young children).

The food aid program also allows for resilience activities that help communities which are vulnerable to shocks that impact food security (such as droughts). These programs play a critical role in bridging humanitarian and development contexts.

However, there is now a proposal in the House of Representatives to roll back these hard-fought reforms and make further progress more difficult. The proposed changes would make it more difficult to develop critical initiatives that increase farmer productivity and incomes, strengthen agriculture markets, and ultimately improve food security and nutrition for marginalized communities.

As climate change makes farming riskier-shifting growing seasons, altering weather patterns, reducing rainfall-adaptation and resilience must be prioritized by Congress, including through the Farm Bill.

Oxfam opposes the regressive “reforms” proposed in the American Farmers Feed the World Act, and is urging House and Senate Agriculture Committee and Foreign Affairs/Relations Committee members to reject harmful rollbacks of the progress achieved in previous Farm Bills.

2. Protect support for millions of food-insecure people in the U.S.

In 2022, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) provided more than 41 million people with an average benefit of $230 per month in benefits to put food on the table. This crucial lifeline is the backbone of the nation’s food assistance programs (other programs include School Meals and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)).

During the recent battle over raising the debt ceiling, SNAP was a target-in this case increasing work requirements for program participants. While some of these requirements were left on the negotiating table, Republicans did manage to expand work requirements for those aged 50-54. House Speaker McCarthy vowed at the time to “get more work requirements” in the Farm Bill.

About 750,000 people aged 50-54 may lose benefits because of the new work requirement rules that were in the debt ceiling bill; another 500,000 people will be impacted by other restrictions that were eased during the pandemic but are now coming back into force. Farm Bill reauthorization should not be used by Congress to make it more difficult to enroll in or maintain SNAP benefits.

But there are improvements that can be made to SNAP to make it easier for people to access nutritious food. The Bipartisan Policy Institute, for example, has called for the creation of a benefit supplement for SNAP recipients specifically for the purchase of fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen, canned, or dried). The idea, based on a successful WIC pilot of the same concept, is that an extra benefit specifically directed for fruit and vegetable purchases can encourage an increase in their purchase and consumption.

3. Support climate-resilient agriculture

Each year, the federal government funds billions of dollar in subsidies and farm support programs, including conservation programs. Oxfam has questioned U.S. agriculture subsidies in the past, documenting how they create unfair playing fields for farmers in less developed countries.

Not all subsidies are created the same, though, and paying farmers to improve farming practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is critical given agriculture’s significant contribution to climate change. Along with land use change (read deforestation), U.S. agriculture is responsible for about 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, according to EPA estimates.

Oxfam has targeted food and beverage companies to reduce emissions in their supply chains and in the Farm Bill; Congress can increase support for programs that help farmers implement low-emissions practices such as regenerative agriculture. This should include Farm Bill programs that extend more support for smaller, diversified farm operations.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, (a USDA agency tasked with supporting conservation practices on working lands), has in recent years prioritized providing assistance for socially disadvantaged, beginning, limited-resource, and female farmers and ranchers, including providing financial resources to promote climate resilience.

The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), which plays a role in supporting farmers to adopt, implement, and manage good environmental practices on their farms should also be reformed to support climate resilience goals. The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has offered a raft of improvements to CSP and other Farm Bill programs that can support climate change mitigation objectives.

While many of the proposed changes are technical, there is also a desperate need to increase funding for CSP. This program is a clear opportunity for the U.S. to invest in solutions to meet the climate crisis in the agriculture sector, and show evidence it is serious about meeting its emissions reduction goal by 2030. It’s a good place to start, so that the agriculture sector can contribute to national goals to halve GHG emissions by 2030. Without investment in this program, the U.S. risks failing to meet its commitment.

The Farm Bill is a massive piece of legislation, and these reforms are just the tip of the iceberg for what is needed to ensure U.S. farm programs are part of the solution to nourishing, equitable and regenerative food systems. Congress has a huge responsibility-but also a huge opportunity to ensure US food and farm programs are good for people and the planet.


TAKE ACTION: Email your senators now and urge them to oppose this—and any bill—that weakens lifesaving international food aid.

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