By Michele F. Mihaljevich
OAK BROOK, Ill. – Climate policy will be a major part of the debate surrounding the next farm bill and of the legislation itself, according to speakers during a recent Farm Foundation Forum.
Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, stressed the importance of the conservation title for the farm bill.
“I believe that this farm bill that we’re debating in 2023 will need to be able to carry a label as the most climate-friendly bill that we have ever passed in the Congress in terms of agriculture,” he stated. “I think the question for us is how do you go about doing that? Is it through incentives like we have used in the past – cost-share and technical assistance? Is it through denying of subsidies and payments like we have done some in the past? Or do we just flat out say go with the mandate route and say, ‘farmers, you shall do this’ kind of thing?
“Certainly I join a lot of American agriculture in hoping it’s not this third option. I believe we have solved a lot of problems in American agriculture using incentives and cost-share. I believe this can also be done in the climate space.”
The Farm Foundation Forum was Dec. 6.
Jonathan Coppess, director of the Gardner Agriculture Policy Program, and associate professor of law and policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said Congress could go three ways with the next farm bill. It could keep the status quo, meaning very few or only minor changes would be made. It could create an evolutionary bill, meaning substantive changes would be made, but they would be within a direction or trend previously established. The third option, a revolutionary bill, would make major changes that push in a new or different direction.
“If we’re going to drive a revolutionary farm bill this time around, climate change is likely the reason,” he explained. “Its impacts on agriculture are already being felt in many parts of the country and the projections are obviously difficult. As we see climate change impact, it is going to hit policy no matter what. That really puts the pressure on those of us who work and think through this about what our policies may need to look like, how we may need to adjust these things going forward given that reality.”
Chris Adamo, vice president for public affairs and regenerative agriculture policy at Danone, said climate change “is an issue that is sticking, first and foremost, for a lot of folks in the value chain whether you’re a farmer on the ground, whether you’re a consumer or whether you’re one of the many in between input companies or processors.”
The current farm bill has 12 titles: commodities (title I), conservation (II), trade (III), nutrition (IV), credit (V), rural development (VI), research, extension and related matters (VII), forestry (VIII), energy (IX), horticulture (X), crop insurance (XI) and miscellaneous (XII).
In the 2018 farm bill, 76 percent of funding went toward the nutrition title, Conner said. Nine percent went to crop insurance, 7 percent to commodities, 7 percent to conservation and 1 percent to the other titles.
The projection for the 2023 farm bill is that the nutrition title could make up 84 percent of spending, he said. Crop insurance could receive 6 percent, commodities 5 percent, conservation 4 percent and the other titles, 1 percent.
“I can see this being a source of a lot of conflict,” Conner pointed out. “There’s going to be a real attempt to increase conservation, to increase some support levels for the commodity programs because those levels are so low compared to current market prices and compared to the current cost of production. Where’s that money going to come from?”
Conservation is one of the key areas that will shape debate on the bill, he said. A goal will be to do “all we can to help farmers meet the challenges that they face in terms of producing as much as they can with the least amount of footprint that they can.
“The world is really watching what we’re going to be doing here in terms of this whole climate, regenerative agricultural debate and how we partner with our producers and our farmers out there to really do it as well as we possibly can.”
Adamo said in the last 15-20 years, one of the trends of drivers for farm bill conversations is consumer awareness and demands on the food value chain for transparency and positive food attributes. Other trends include organic food industry growth, local food system demands, climate change, and diversity, equity and inclusion in our food systems.
“Overall, we just see a larger constituency starting to show up at farm bills over the last 20 plus years,” he noted. “I know this is more than just about farmers at the end of the day. It’s about consumers, it’s about a number of folks within the food industry overall.”
Conner said the experience of the leadership on the House and Senate agriculture committees is important to getting a farm bill deal done. He cited Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pa.), who will become chair of the House committee when the new Congress convenes in January. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), current chair, will become ranking member of the committee next year. Conner also mentioned Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate committee, and Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), ranking member of the committee.
Conner said this leadership “gives me hope and optimism that through the work and the bipartisan work of these four individuals and their experience, that despite very, very difficult odds, we stand a reasonably good chance at getting a good farm bill delivered on time.”