Farm Bill Sows Seeds of Change

By Ben Margolis

The U.S. Farm Bill has a huge influence on how we feed our country. Given that food and agriculture contribute 9% of the United States’ carbon emissions, the environmental consequences can be really significant yet largely underappreciated.

Functionally, the Farm Bill provides funding for two key things: agricultural support and food subsidy support. So, it’s a win for both parties: Republicans get to show support to their agricultural constituents, and the Democrats get to show support for the underprivileged.

That said, the Farm Bill is always a massive negotiation between the parties every time it comes around. Since the funds for farm programs were only provided through 2018 from the Agricultural Act of 2014, it is time once again to play Let’s make a deal.

Caught up in the partisan negotiations are pieces of environmental legislation that include organic food production, water quality improvements and forest conservation efforts, among other rules.

First, here’s an overview of the various goody bag of rules & laws. One big highlight is the bill removes hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, opening up the hemp production industry. This is big news for hemp producers and beneficiaries of the hemp product: CBD which can help with pain relief, anxiety and spasms. Some of the other goody bag items include making dog and cat meat illegal and provisions that help protect pets.

When the Farm Bill first came up in May, there were many potential issues. The most controversial was a Republican-led reform for work requirements for the food stamp program as well as other aspects that would make it increasingly difficult to get access to the program.

Other major provisions brought up in May were primarily environmental issues. First of all, there was an attempt to repeal the Clean Water Act – though that language was eventually rescinded from the bill. The current version that passed Congress now actually increases conservation funding.

Secondly, there was a push by U.S. Rep. Steve King to bar local governments from adopting laws on farming and food that are stricter than Federal rules.

This is similar to what the California Air Resources Board does for vehicles – where the state sets stricter rules for vehicle emissions than the Federal government. Since manufacturers don’t want to make a specific car just for California, the entire country effectively adopts these California-based rules. This reform has also been removed from the more recent version and tamed down.

Lastly, and more recently, Conservatives wanted to push for logging on Federal lands. This was put on as a potential way to help prevent forest fires – if there’s no forest. Democrats fought against this provision and won and even got slight increases to wildfire prevention programming.

Overall, it’s not as bad as it could have been since all of these environmental issues were taken off the table.  The vanilla package of the Farm Bill worked out to be just that – a nothing burger of handouts that were already expected and will continue.

The impact to the environment is, unfortunately, status quo (ie. We’re still in a pretty bad place).

Ben Margolis is a Principal at genseed advisors, a management consulting company working with early stage ventures in the environmental sector. Ben holds an MBA from University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and a Bachelor of Sciences in Environmental Engineering from the University of Maryland.

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