The New Farm Bill: An Opportunity to Create a Sustainable Agricultural System
Change could be on the horizon for agriculture and food in the United States. The controversial 2012 Farm Bill, which failed to pass in November, is back on the table and due for a rewrite. (For a recap of the original “Secret Farm Bill” and how it failed, read this).
The new Farm Bill could be a tremendous opportunity to finally introduce both incremental and systems-level innovation in the way we eat and grow our food.
It’s important to note that the Farm Bill affects more than just farmers—it impacts everyone who, well, eats.
In addition to funding crop insurance and subsidies, the Farm Bill dictates priorities for a vast range of nutrition and environmental programs, including school lunches, food stamps, land and forest conservation, and water management.
Ultimately, the nation’s fresh water supply, soil fertility, and food security are all at stake. Government incentives for particular crops and food products affect their price and availability, and therefore whether we eat healthily or not.
The Farm Bill can also encourage or discourage proper land conservation and best farming practices—key to preventing devastating events like the 1935 Dust Bowl (which prompted the first ever Farm Bill).
Today, depleted aquifers, soil loss, and marine dead zones are all the result of the still largely unsustainable agricultural practices in the United States. With climate change bringing severe weather and desertification into the mix, revamping our agricultural system is a more urgent issue than ever.
The new Farm Bill is our chance to make some big changes. And social entrepreneurs working in the sustainable farming and food movement are illuminating some of the key opportunities for innovation in the space.
Many are pointing the way to providing better support for economically viable, small and medium-sized farms that engage in sustainable and/or organic farming and conservation agriculture. Why smaller farms? Evidence has shown that smaller farms, with diverse crops planted with buffer zones, are more climate friendly, and that organic crops fare better in the face of drought and flooding.
And while very large farms aren’t necessarily bad for the environment, the fact is that most of them use “conventional” methods. By contrast, a new generation of entrepreneurs are returning to independent farming, and many of them are drawn to farming by the ideals of organic, sustainable, and locally produced food.
Limited access to financing and land is one of the biggest obstacles for smallholder growers. Innovative organizations like The Carrot Project, however, have focused on lending growth capital to small and mid-sized farms.
According to The Carrot Project, “Many lenders are unable to work with smaller farmers because of the costs of administering smaller loans, lack of flexibility in applying selection criteria, inflexible terms or use of capital, and lack of agricultural expertise.”
By bridging the gap between smaller farmers and lenders, The Carrot Project is also contributing to a growing body of knowledge about what it takes to keep small farms financially and ecologically sustainable (Farm Bill authors take note).
Another organization called Vermont Food Education Everyday (VT FEED) helps schools source healthy food from local farms, and raises awareness about nutrition and the importance of food systems among students. By educating students about the importance of healthy, local food, VT FEED is seeding long-term behavior changes that will support good health and local food systems and provide a continued market for farmers.
(Remember when Congress essentially declared that pizza was a vegetable so that the frozen food industry could continue its dominance of school lunches? That was in the old Farm Bill.)
Other promising areas for innovation are:
- Improving access to crop insurance for smaller and organic farmers. Under the current federal system, organic farmers are actually charged an extra five percent and only reimbursed at conventional prices for their losses.
- Encouraging innovative conservation agriculture, like agroforestry, which uses trees to naturally make farms more productive while helping curb pollution and other types of ecological degradation. The Department of Agriculture has already begun an agroforestry program, but expanding such programs instead of subsidizing black holes like corn ethanol production could usher in a whole new future of innovative sustainable agriculture.
The new Farm Bill is going to be a battle between a legion of lobbyists and stakeholders. But you can raise your voice by contacting your federal representative — here are some bills to mention and support, courtesy of Amy Blankenstein of Just Food:
• The Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act (S. 1773, H.R. 3286)
• The Community Agriculture Development and Jobs Act (H.R. 3225)
• The Expanding Access to Farmers Markets Act (S. 1593)
• The Beginning Farmer Rancher Opportunity Act of 2011 [H.R. 3236
You can also start a farm-to-school program in your community if one doesn’t already exist. Or, vote with your dollar by supporting local, sustainably grown food.
The Carrot Project and VT Feed were both entrants in the Revelation to Action: Your Place. Your Idea. Your Change competition.