No legislation does more to shape how Americans eat than the Farm Bill. Every five years — including 2023 — Congress must update and renew this omnibus law that covers a range from crop insurance and agriculture subsidies to food stamps and farm labor. Lawmakers are now debating what the expected $709 billion allocation will fund when the current bill expires in September, after public hearings kicked off the process last year. It’s difficult to parse out the details of a bill this massive, but its policies reach into our everyday lives, determining what food reaches our plates and how much it costs to get there.
Soaring inflation may headline Congress’ approach to the 2023 Farm Bill. Farmers, too, have been hit hard by the same rising costs that have flowed into the aisles where Americans shop. Per the Congressional Research Service, food prices rose by 6.5 percent in 2021 — up to 12.5 percent for certain items like meat and eggs — after an annual average of 1.5 percent over the previous decade.
A national sweet tooth
Americans eat more sugar than anyone else in the world, around a quarter-pound per day on average. Added sugars raise our risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Still, sugar subsidies account for 63.5 percent of that industry’s production value.
Lessons of COVID-19
Haunting images of grocery store shelves lying empty at the height of the pandemic brought attention to certain problems in our food and agriculture system, which this cycle is expected to address. For example, after outbreaks at large meat processing plants led to meat shortages and skyrocketing prices, Congress may try to diversify the industry by supporting smaller plants.
Commodity is king
Most of the subsidies fund commodity crops like corn and soybeans that are not primarily meant for humans to eat. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, most corn goes into animal feed and ethanol production, or gets processed into high fructose corn syrup. What does that look like on our dinner plates? Diets with a lot of meat and processed foods, which are linked to health problems like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Feeding the hungry
About three-quarters of the bill’s spending falls under the Nutrition chapter, largely focused on food programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Commonly known as food stamps, SNAP helps feed more than 10 percent of American households, but also — perhaps surprisingly — nourishes the economy. Every dollar invested in SNAP benefits during a downturn generates between $1.50 and $1.80 in economic activity.
A lobbyist’s boon
While an omnibus bill has advantages, transparency isn’t one of them. A bill this complex relies on bipartisan and bicameral cooperation, and its enormity opens doors to outside influence. Lobbying from the agriculture sector spikes when this law is on the table. The 2018 Farm Bill was the fourth-most lobbied in the 115th Congress and, according to Investigate Midwest, agribusiness spent $165 million lobbying last year, the most since 2013.
Not your grandpa’s farm
Agricultural subsidies are meant to help farms, big and small, deal with the unpredictable nature of farming: Natural disasters and price drops can be catastrophic for any operation. But large commercial agribusinesses are receiving most of the subsi-dies. A 2018 study from the American Enterprise Institute found that farms in the top 2 percent of commodity sales received the highest subsidies per acre. This puts smaller farms at a disadvantage in the competition for markets and land.
This could be the first Farm Bill to directly address climate change, a top priority for the current administration. Agriculture contributes about 11 percent of nationwide greenhouse emissions. Because farms are vulnerable to extreme weather like floods and droughts that are expected to intensify, there could be common ground based on protecting the nation’s food supply.
Beyond the fields
“It’s a nice name: the Farm Bill. And there are clearly programs that benefit farmers, but you don’t have to be a farmer to be interested in the farm bill. You can live in a rural community and be a librarian. And in the farm bill, there are programs that your small town accesses to build the library that you work in and some of the infrastructure of your town. You’re a librarian, you don’t actually grow anything.” — Dennis Nuxoll, Vice President of Government Affairs at Western Growers, a farmer advocacy group