Growing Calls for a More Just, Climate-Savvy Farm Bill

An illustration of patchwork farmland from a bird's-eye view

There has been a flurry of climate justice advocacy in recent weeks—from social media posts to rallies at the capitol—around the Farm Bill. See, for example, this Instagram post from Soul Fire Farm (an Afro-Indigenous centered community farm and nonprofit educational organization) announcing grant funding for policy advocacy on the Farm Bill; or this blog post from Union of Concerned Scientists discussing the Farm Bill’s climate implications and advocacy to strengthen the bill such as the recent “Farmers for Climate Action: Rally for Resilience.”

So what is the Farm Bill, and what does it have to do with climate justice?

Background—From the Great Depression to Today: The Farm Bill is a package of legislation that manages a wide variety of agricultural and food programs, affecting everything from our fields to what we put on our forks (including farming and conservation practices, funding and insurance for farmers and other land- and food-stewards, food access and costs for consumers, renewable energy and biofuel, and more). For more detail on the programs created and supported by the Farm Bill, check out this breakdown from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition or visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) website.

The agricultural sector accounts for over 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. (See U.S. Env’t Prot. Agency data). But, as Peter Lehner and Nathan Rosenberg explain in their book Farming for Our Future, farmers and ranchers can reduce emissions and even sequester carbon through improved management of farm animals and crops. The Farm Bill provides important funding to support these climate-friendly farming practices while ensuring that food is still affordable and accessible for consumers.

The Farm Bill was first passed in the 1930s as part of the New Deal to ensure sustainable food prices for both farmers and consumers amidst the Great Depression. Congress reauthorizes the legislation approximately every five years, in order to continue certain programs which otherwise would expire, and to make policy or budget changes to those programs which the legislation permanently authorizes. (See Congressional Research Service, Farm Bill Primer). Most Farm Bill programs are mandatory spending programs (including the farm commodities programs which provide financial assistance to farmers in order to keep major commodities like wheat and dairy plentiful and affordable for consumers; nutrition assistance programs which fund food for low-income households; conservation programs which encourage sustainable stewardship of farmlands; and crop insurance which helps farmers bounce back from major losses). The remainder of Farm Bill programs, such as research and credit programs, are discretionary spending programs, authorized by the law but funded through separate annual appropriations acts. The current Farm Bill, the Agriculture and Improvement Act of 2018, generally expires at the end of Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 (September 30, 2023), so Congress is expected to debate reauthorization later this year.

If Congress fails to reauthorize or extend the legislation by the end of FY 2023, most mandatory programs will cease to operate. But there are a few exceptions for programs such as the commodity and supplemental nutrition assistance programs. For more information on the effect of the 2018 Farm Bill expiring without reauthorization, see the Congressional Research Service’s 2022 report Preparing for the Next Farm Bill and 2018 report Expiration of the 2014 Farm Bill.

Status of the 2023 Farm Bill: For the 2023 Farm Bill, the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry has held several hearings over the past year on the 2023 Farm Bill (recordings of which can be found on the Committee’s website). The Committee continues to invite public input which can be submitted on the Committee’s website.

Calls for Climate Justice through the Farm Bill: In March, hundreds of people attended the “Farmers for Climate Action: Rally for Resilience” in Washington, D.C., asking lawmakers to put more funding towards farmer-led climate solutions, affected communities, and racial justice, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s event page for the rally. These calls for racial justice include improving research, funding, and access to USDA programs for underserved people and farmers of color, according to the Coalition’s 2023 platform on Advancing Racial Equity Across the Food System. Reuters reported that rally attendees called for new measures in the Farm Bill to safeguard farms and farmworkers from increasing heat—such as workplace protections and additional funding for soil health and water conservation efforts. Union of Concerned Scientists president Johanna Chao Kreilick, who spoke at the rally, emphasized in her blog post following the event that the 2023 Farm Bill should be informed by the many Black, Indigenous, and immigrant farmers with expertise in farming practices that are necessary to combat the climate crisis, and increase funding for further research into climate-friendly farming practices. The HEAL Food Alliance (a coalition of organizations representing farm and food chain workers, indigenous groups, scientists, public health advocates, and others) is also advocating for Congress to ensure the Farm Bill programs are equitably administered, provide labor protections for farm and food chain workers, and increase investment in community food systems, nutrition assistance, and sustainable, regenerative practices.

Stay tuned: The State Energy and Environmental Impact Center is tracking the 2023 Farm Bill developments, and will follow up with more information once the draft bill is available.