THE SO CALLED “climate-smart” political agenda of U.S. President Joe Biden left producers on both sides of the border nervous about potential ripple effects on the 2023 Farm Bill. That’s the piece of legislation that’s been created in the U.S. every five years since 1933 to support agriculture and, most lately, nutrition and food aid. From 2017 to 2022, it funnelled a staggering $428 billion into the American food and farming sectors.
Given Biden’s pro-environment platform, producers wondered if the bill’s conservation portion (called a “title”), which accounted for about seven per cent of the last bill’s total commitment, would grow at the expense of what might be considered more producer-oriented titles. These include crop insurance, disaster relief and commodities, specifically corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice, peanuts, dairy, and sugar.
And if that was the case, would farming have to change to take advantage of conservation opportunities? Would trading partners like Canada then be expected to mirror U.S. domestic environmental practices in their own nations to do business with Americans?
These are vitally important questions to the Canadian agricultural sector. But they may never be answered, pending the outcome of this fall’s U.S. elections.
Although Democrats started committee hearings in March to try to get a new farm bill authorized before the current one runs out, they’re fighting an uphill battle. They chair the hearings now because they have a slim margin of control.
But that could change. Midterm elections in the U.S. take place in November, and Americans — angry and frustrated about matters such as inflation, labour shortages and the pandemic — are expected to elect enough Republicans to Congress to change the balance of power, giving them the Farm Bill hearings chair.
Political observers believe that shift could influence the farm bill’s direction…but not before it stalls its progress. Republicans, expecting to take more control, aren’t anxious to hurry along a new bill with Democratic features, such as more environmental emphasis. If they drag their feet into the fall — even though the current bill will expire in September 2023 and the country will have to pass a measure extending the current authority until the next one is enacted — the Republicans like their chances of getting to fashion the new bill in their image, not Biden’s.
Those caught in the middle, like the highly influential U.S. National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA), are trying to stop the process from grinding to a halt. NASDA is considered the nexus between the federal government and the states on agriculture and food policy.
During one subcommittee hearing, Bruce Kettler, second vice-president of the organization and director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, said that timely passage of the 2023 Farm Bill is needed to give farmers confidence and clarity.
“It is vital Congress provides certainty by delivering a forward-looking, fully funded farm bill, on time,” he says. “If the pandemic and the recent events unfolding in Ukraine have taught us anything, it is that this farm bill and all future farm bills are an issue of national security.”
NASDA has cited these 10 priorities for the Farm Bill and their key components:
- Agricultural research. Emphasize research focused on the safety and security of the food system and improving and protecting natural resources.
- Animal disease. Support a comprehensive animal disease prevention and management program, including three critical components: early disease detection and surveillance, prevention and rapid response.
- Conservation and climate resiliency. Increase funding for the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, which gives producers financial and technical assistance to help conserve agricultural lands and wetlands and their related benefits.
- Cyber security. Maintain current funding ($20 million) to deter risk of serious harm to businesses within agriculture and agri-business, including financial losses, loss of confidential business information and intellectual property and disruptions to the nation’s food supply.
- Food safety. Provide resources to help producers comply with the Food Safety Modernization Act.
- Hemp. Amend the federal definition of hemp to increase the total THC concentration to one per cent or less.
- Invasive species. Increase funding for the Plant Pest and Disease Management and Disaster Prevention and the National Clean Plant Network to provide additional tools for addressing domestic invasive species.
- Local food systems. Create supply chain solutions that create increased equity in the food systems and support increasing flexibility for schools participating in the federal food aid program to increase direct purchases of local products outside of the school foodservice contract.
- Specialty crops. Increase funding for the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and expand eligibility to hemp crops with horticultural use.
- Trade promotion. Promote American-grown and produced food and agricultural products that compete with heavily subsidized foreign products. The association says that for every $1 invested in export market development programs, $24 is returned in export revenue.
- Whoever ends up controlling the farm bill’s direction and content will need to keep Americans’ steadily growing interest in the environment in mind.
In April, the news and polling firm Gallup reported that for the seventh straight year, U.S. public concern about the quality of the environment is near a two-decade high, with 44 per cent of Americans worrying “a great deal” about it.
Compare that to the first 15 years after Gallup began tracking this public sentiment in 2001: then, closer to a third of Americans said they worried a great deal about the environment, with the figure exceeding 40 per cent only twice, in 2001 and 2007.
Still, experts expect a shift in priorities. Attorney Kayla Gebeck Carroll and Senior Policy Advisor Peter Tabor of the Washington-based law firm Holland and Knight, who advise clients on farm bill matters, believe Republicans will put more emphasis on programs that emphasize production and increased yields.
Says Gebeck Carroll: “There will be a large focus on returning power to farmers and increasing access to new markets.”
IMPACT ON CANADA
Innovation will also be a priority. A key message coming out of Washington is to find creative ways to solve problems through collaboration and innovation. And the likelihood of the bill being held up after the midterm election means there is even more time to identify new ways to increase revenue for farmers, ranchers, and producers.
That delay could bode well for Canada. Tabor says these days, Washington considers Canada an agricultural ally. He’s enthused about the way the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and its U.S. counterpart work together and how the United States Department of Agriculture and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada are getting along.
“The trade relationship between Canada and the U.S. is solid,” he says. “My advice to the agri-food industry is to look for ways to make the connection even better. We share common agricultural concerns, like inflation and the effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Those are big problems that will be ongoing and affect trade, and there will be differences between our countries, but we can work together to deal with them.”
Neither Gebeck Carroll nor Tabor are concerned about the Farm Bill expiring. In fact, the past two farm bills were extended beyond their expiration. Even though about three-quarters of the Farm Bill funds go to very time-sensitive programs such as school nutrition and food aid, the country continued doing business until it got a new one. As part of the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress enacted a one-year extension of the existing Farm Bill. During the 2018 Farm Bill negotiations, a final package was enacted in December, three months after the authority expired — with little negative impact. •