With the upcoming expiration of the US Farm Bill in September, lawmakers are drawing battle lines over numerous issues that impact the lives of millions of people, from food assistance to farm subsidies and more.
As in past years, the debates are shaping up with a focus on programs aimed at helping provide nutrition to needy families, but some environmental and public health advocates say the bill also offers an opportunity to tackle concerns about harmful pesticides used in agriculture and farmworkers health issues — an opportunity they hope lawmakers won’t miss.
“There’s never been any attention on pesticides and farmworker health,” said Margaret Reeves, a senior scientist at the advocacy group Pesticide Action Network (PAN). “So if we get any, that’ll be progress.”
Hunger and “hypocrisy”
Much of the debate over the upcoming Farm Bill is expected to target questions about whether to expand, reform, or cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), an anti-hunger program that helps low-income families purchase food. SNAP makes up about 80% of funding in the current Farm Bill.
“In this current Congress, that’s going to get a lot of airtime,” Reeves said.
The debate heated up last month, when House Agriculture Committee member Dusty Johnson (R-SD), along with 23 other House Republicans, proposed legislation for the upcoming bill that would strengthen the eligibility requirements for SNAP. The measure, dubbed the America Works Act of 2023, would expand the number of people subject to SNAP’s work requirements, potentially jeopardizing food benefits for more than 10 million people, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The Republican Study Committee’s 2023 proposed budget seeks to remove SNAP benefits from the Farm Bill altogether.
Some members of Congress who support the potential reduction in SNAP benefits receive benefits of their own from a different program authorized under the farm bill through farm subsidies, a situation that some observers find hypocritical.
“There’s this hypocrisy of saying, “We shouldn’t support government handouts,” and then folks are benefiting from those government handouts themselves,” said Sophie Ackoff, the Farm Bill campaign director for the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists. “They shouldn’t make it harder for Americans to access their food assistance programs.”
Four of the 24 original cosponsors of the bill have received payments from farm subsidy programs between 1995 and 2021, according to a recent analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a research and advocacy nonprofit. Rep. August Pfluger (R-TX), a co-sponsor of the America Works Act, has received a total of $369,735, while Rep. Mary Miller (R-IL) has received $991,435. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) and Rep. Josh Brecheen (R-OK) also have received payments.
Lamborn’s office declined to comment for this story and Pfluger, Miller, and Brecheen did not respond to requests for comment about their farm subsidy payments.
In a letter to the Biden Administration outlining his district’s priorities for the upcoming Farm Bill, Pfluger asked Biden to continue to protect farm subsidy programs, which he called a “strong and durable safety net” for farmers.
Rep. David Scott (D-GA), ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, supports defending SNAP, and called the Republican proposal to restrict SNAP benefits “disconnected from reality” in an op-ed for The Hill. He also said Democrats would “roundly reject such efforts.”
Seeking pesticide reform
Environmental and public health advocates say the Farm Bill provides an avenue for reducing the use of pesticides shown by scientific research to be harmful to biodiversity and human health. Several pesticides currently on the market in the United States have been linked to cancers and other diseases and well as reproductive problems and neurological impairments.
The Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act of 2021 (PACTPA), a bill reintroduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) this year, includes many reforms that environmental advocacy groups want to see in the Farm Bill.
Booker’s bill would immediately suspend the registration of any pesticide product that is deemed to be so dangerous that it is banned in the European Union, countries in the European Union, or Canada.
Also included in PACTPA is a mandatory requirement that employers must report any pesticide-related illnesses among workers. Currently, only some states enforce such a rule, but Booker’s bill would extend that rule nationwide. PACTPA would also block efforts by other lawmakers to pass a federal preemption law that would block restrictions on pesticides by state and local officials.
“PACTPA is really the visionary pesticide reform policy,” said Willa Childress, PAN’s co-director of organizing. However, she said there is “no clear pathway” to passing the bill.
The Agriculture Resilience Act, a bill introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) in April 2021, also seeks pesticide reform by creating support for alternatives to chemical-intensive agriculture. The bill would ensure that federal research funding would prioritize research into agro-ecological farming practices that may decrease the food system’s reliance on pesticides.
Childress and others fear that even as they push for pesticide restrictions, industry-friendly Republican leaders in Congress could actually add language to the Farm Bill that weakens pesticide regulations.
The pesticide preemption efforts are particularly worrisome, according to Childress. A bill introduced last Congress by former Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), included language supporting pesticide preemption on a federal level, which Childress is concerned may makes its way into the new Farm Bill.
“That would mean that a number of communities that currently have the right to go above a state standard on pesticide protection would lose that right,” she said. “It’s really easy to see some of these bad riders slip in, because the conversation is really happening elsewhere,” Childress said.
There has been a forceful campaign from Republicans to protect preemption and support Rep. Davis’s bill, said Childress. She also anticipates that there will be efforts from Republicans to remove some of the protections for workers that exist in the current Farm Bill.
Empowering small farms
Some environmental advocates are pushing for more support for small farms that practice regenerative agriculture, said Jessica Swan, the community outreach organizer for the Agri-Cultura Network, a farmer cooperative in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
She and her colleagues want the new Farm Bill to include new rules that not only cut chemically intensive farming practices nationwide and protect workers from pesticide-related illnesses, but also make farmer conservation programs more accessible to people who own small or urban farms. They also want to see crop insurance and commodity programs reward more farmers for organic and regenerative practices.
In a letter to House Agriculture Committee Chairman David Scott, Agri-Cultura and 49 other food and agriculture organizations called for these measures and also called on Congress to block funds that support large, polluting animal agriculture operations.
“It’s this huge opportunity to actually serve the interests of farmers, workers, and communities. For far too long and for too many Farm Bills, the ones who are the primary beneficiaries are really agribusiness companies,” said Ackoff.
Conventional production at large farms typically comes with a substantial carbon and chemical footprint, and programs that drive positive environmental changes at these industrial-sized operations arms are needed too, said Peter Lehner, an attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental legal group.
He and others advocating for environmentally transformative measures in the new Farm Bill say meaningful change is needed.
“All of us who eat, all of those who live on the planet, all of us who drink water … we all depend on a better Farm Bill,” said Lehner.