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A Better Way Forward for Food and Agriculture | Commentary

Passage of the 2014 farm bill ends a frustrating two-year legislative journey, largely driven by a search for significant budget reductions, and often fueled by polarizing rhetoric on how to make those cuts a reality.

There are several important achievements in the bill for which committee members deserve credit, among them: ending direct payments; compliance with existing conservation requirements to qualify for crop insurance; the inclusion of a pilot project in the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables; and enhanced flexibility for the international food assistance program.

But the legislative effort should have yielded so much more. Food and agriculture systems in the United States and around the world face fundamental long-term challenges posed by resource scarcity, population growth, climate change, invasive pests, pathogens and diseases, rising consumer incomes in low- and middle-income countries, and shifts in relative economic power. These challenges demand forward-looking leadership. The 2014 farm bill did not provide it.

In developing the 2014 farm bill, legislators focused on the here and now, giving only meager attention to the challenges of tomorrow. For example, despite the fact that American agriculture owes much of its past success to a world-class public research, education and extension system, federal and state support for that system has been allowed to stagnate, even as formidable new productivity, natural resource and sustainability challenges continue to emerge. Farmers and ranchers are feeling the pressure of meeting state water quality requirements and private sector sustainability standards, but this farm bill did very little to support their efforts to improve agricultural ecosystems or reward active engagement in good stewardship of working lands.

Similarly, while the SNAP program became a focal point for fierce debate, the discussion was narrowly confined to budgetary questions. Congress missed a great opportunity to explore broader strategies to incentivize SNAP households and the public at large to make healthier food choices that could reduce the societal impact of obesity and food-related disease.

Moreover, despite the intense focus on budget priorities, and while it is important to protect producers from some risks inherent to agriculture, we believe the new crop insurance programs within this farm bill could present very real budget challenges.

America needs a new way forward for food and agriculture policy and program formulation. We would argue that only a transformative restructuring of the way food and agriculture policy is developed will deliver what is needed. To face our most serious challenges effectively, we must identify and enact policies that integrate sound science with social, economic and environmental goals to ensure safe and affordable food supplies that are broadly accessible to consumers of all income levels and encourage sustainable resource use by our nation’s farmers and ranchers. This must happen even if budgetary pressures increase and further reductions are made to USDA’s food and agriculture programs.

As co-chairs of AGree, we believe that now is the time for Congress to test a new approach to food and agriculture policy. Rather than just a farm bill, we need a Food, Farming and Healthy Environment Act, legislation that encompasses the needs and goals of many communities: farmers, ranchers, foresters and fisherman; food consumers, rich and poor, urban and rural; food, fuel, and fiber processors and manufacturers; and agribusinesses all along the value chain.

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