Policy Connection

February 2023 Policy Connection

The Policy Connection is a regular digital publication for SAFSF members, providing insights into key policy issues for sustainable agriculture and food systems. Blog post will now be embedded within the recurring publication to provide space for deeper sharing of news and resources.

Congressional News

Nutrition Programs in the 2023 Farm Bill

Stacy Dean, Deputy Under Secretary for USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, and Cindy Long, USDA Food and Nutrition Service Administrator, took the witness stand at the Senate’s 5th hearing on programs in the 2023 Farm Bill. 

The conversation focused largely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), both in terms of cost and impactful changes made to the program during the Covid-19 pandemic, such as the SNAP online purchasing pilot. Watch the full hearing

Several Republican members of the committee including Ranking Member John Boozman (R-AR), Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA), Sen. Roger Marshall (R-KN), and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) were deeply critical of USDA’s adjustment to the Thrifty Food Plan, a metric used to estimate the cost of a healthy diet and that informs SNAP maximum allotments. Sen. Boozman remarked “[USDA] political appointees have made passage of the 2023 Farm Bill much more difficult.” 

Importantly, USDA was directed by Congress in the 2018 Farm Bill to review the Thrifty Food Plan and the subsequent cost adjustment marked the first change since it was introduced in 1975. Yes, the increase to the Thrifty Food Plan will increase the cost of SNAP over the next 10 years (see page 13), but as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) pointed out, this update is intended to make the program work better for millions of Americans. SNAP remains the nation’s most effective tool to combat hunger. 

Commodity Programs, Crop Insurance, and Credit in the 2023 Farm Bill 

Witnesses at the February 9th hearing included Robert Bonnie, Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation at USDA, Marcia Bunger, USDA Risk Management Agency Administrator, and Zach Ducheneaux, USDA Farm Service Agency Administrator. 

These three witnesses and members of the Senate Agriculture Committee discussed the impacts of the farm safety net — the collection of programs that provide risk protection and income support — in the wake of the 2018 Farm Bill, how to increase equity and access to programs, how to plan for disaster assistance and manage ad-hoc payments, and also touched on foreign ownership of farmland. Watch the full hearing.

Chairwoman Stabenow (D-MI) committed in her opening statement to “focus on expanding and strengthening crop insurance for all farmers – including specialty crop growers, organic producers, beginning and diversified farmers.” There is much work to be done on this front as the nation’s largest commodity farms continue to receive the lion’s share of payments given there are no payment limitations tied on crop insurance subsidies. In fact, the Environmental Working Group notes that between 1995 and 2021, the top 10 percent of farm subsidy recipients that received the largest payments received over 78 percent of commodity program subsidies, and the top 1 percent received 27 percent of payments.

Senators Reintroduce Bill to Increase Competition in the Meatpacking Industry

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) reintroduced the Meat Packing Special Investigator Act to combat corporate consolidation, enforce the nation’s antitrust laws and protect the livelihood of family farmers and ranchers. 

The bill would create the “Office of the Special Investigator for Competition Matters” within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Packers and Stockyards Division, comprised of a team of investigators, with subpoena power who are responsible for targeting and preventing anti-competitive practices among large players in the meat and poultry industries. 

Currently, only four companies control 18 of the top 20 beef slaughter facilities in the country. This consolidation has significantly limited the ability of small farmers and ranchers to negotiate higher prices for their products and undercuts rural economies. 

Congress Reintroduces Bill to Restrict Foreign Ownership of U.S. Farmland 

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) along with Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), Rep. Rick Crawford (R-AR), Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA), reintroduced the Promoting Agriculture Safeguards and Security (PASS) Act in the House and the Senate, aimed at preventing China, Russia, Iran and North Korea from investing in, purchasing, leasing or otherwise acquiring U.S. farmland. 

This PASS Act would also add the Secretary of Agriculture as a standing member of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to consider agriculture needs when making determinations affecting national security, and require a report to Congress from USDA on the risks posed by foreign takeovers of U.S. businesses engaged in agriculture.

While foreign ownership of U.S. land is generating significant attention in Congress, it is important to keep in mind that U.S. based investors, athletes, and corporations are increasingly adding farmland to their portfolios and further pricing out underserved farmers and ranchers. In other words, the debate around foreign ownership is a red herring. As National Family Farms Coalition Policy Coordinator Jordan Treakle said in an interview with Ambrook Research, “Only focusing on foreign corporations does not acknowledge the full scale of the problem, and actually risks exacerbating consolidation trends led by domestic multinational corporations that we see in land ownership and vertical integration in areas like food processing.”

Republican Congressmen Reintroduce Bill to Exempt Farmers from SEC Climate Disclosure Rule

Last year, the Securities and Exchange Commission proposed rule changes that would require all publicly traded companies to disclose GHG emissions from operations a company owns or controls; from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heat or cooling that is consumed by company operations; and, if material, indirect GHG emissions that occur in the upstream and downstream activities of a registrant’s value chain.

Last week, Sen. John Boozman (R-AR), ranking member on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN), also a Senate Agriculture Committee member, and Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), member of the House Agriculture Committee, reintroduced the “Protect Farmers from the SEC Act” in the House and Senate. Sen. Boozman has argued “The publicly traded corporations overseen by the SEC won’t be the ones tasked with complying with these onerous ‘value chain’ rules. That responsibility would fall on America’s family farmers and ranchers who would be forced to deal with unprecedented amount of unnecessary paperwork.”

The pushback against this proposed rule is yet another red herring. The Protect Farmers from the SEC Act is backed by major agribusiness organizations including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council, USA Rice, and the National Cotton Council, with an interest in minimizing emissions reporting. Only very large companies–those with greater than $75m in publicly available equity shares-would be required to disclose emissions from their value chains. Further, the rule does not require these companies to seek emissions data directly from farms and ranches.

Administrative & Agency News

Xochitl Torres Small Nominated to Serve as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture at USDA

President Biden has nominated Xochitl Torres Small to succeed current Deputy Secretary Dr. Jewel Bronaugh. Prior to this nomination, Xochitl Torres Small served as the Under Secretary for Rural Development since her confirmation in October 2021. Xochitl Torres Small previously served as the Democratic representative of New Mexico’s second congressional district, the fifth largest district in the country.

Secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack noted, “The granddaughter of migrant farm workers, Under Secretary Torres Small represents the heart and soul of rural communities…Her expertise will further USDA’s mission to advance equity and opportunity in and for rural America, and USDA’s commitment to build an organization invested in the success of its workforce and the customers we serve.” 

Inflation Reduction Act Funding for Climate-Smart Agriculture Nationwide Available

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) provided an additional $19.5 billion over 5 years for climate smart agriculture through several of the conservation programs that USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) implements. NRCS is making available $850 million in fiscal year 2023 for its oversubscribed conservation programs, all of which are included in the farm bill: the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) and Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP).

The IRA funding includes an additional $8.45 billion for EQIP, $4.95 billion for RCPP, $3.25 billion for CSP, and $1.4 billion for ACEP. USDA notes that “The increased funding levels begin in fiscal year 2023 and rapidly build over four years.” Spending this money impactfully and efficiently is key, as some Republican members of Congress have suggested it should be repurposed. 

As we have stressed in many SAFSF events over the last year, protecting IRA conservation funding and rolling this money into the 2023 Farm Bill baseline is key to empowering farmers and ranchers to fight climate change. 

USDA Announces Steps to Improve Child Health through Nutritious School Meals

In accordance with the White House Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health as well as the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) proposed several updates to school nutrition standards including: 

  • Limiting added sugars in certain high-sugar products and, later, across the weekly menu;
  • Allowing flavored milk in certain circumstances and with reasonable limits on added sugars;
  • Incrementally reducing weekly sodium limits over many school years; and
  • Emphasizing products that are primarily whole grain, with the option for occasional non-whole grain products.

A full description of the proposed provisions for healthier school meals is available here. FNS is accepting comments on these provisions through April 10, 2023.  

Check out this fact sheet developed by SAFSF and Grantmakers In Health (GIH) for information on how philanthropy can play a key role in achieving additional objectives of the White House Strategy.