Tom Vilsack

Since the turn of the year, Congress and the Trump administration have been haggling over legislative priorities. Many issues are on the agenda, from health care to infrastructure, but there has been little mention of a key priority: the 2018 farm bill.

This comprehensive food and agriculture legislation is typically enacted every four or five years. When I became U.S. secretary of agriculture in January 2009, I learned quickly the bill covers much more than farms and farmers. In fact, every farm bill also affects conservation, trade, nutrition, jobs and infrastructure, agricultural research, forestry and energy.

Drafting the farm bill challenges Congress to meet broad needs with limited resources. The new farm bill will be especially constrained by passage of the GOP tax plan, and by concerns about the size of the federal budget deficit. Farm bill proponents will have to work even harder to underscore the ways in which it affects everyone living in the United States.

Of course the farm bill helps farmers, ranchers and producers. It provides credit for beginning farmers to get started. It protects against farm losses due to natural disasters through disaster assistance and crop insurance. It provides a cushion for the individual farmer if he or she suffers a poor yield or low prices. It authorizes programs to help market American agricultural products overseas.

The farm bill is also a nutrition bill. It funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as “food stamps”), our country’s major program that helps low-income individuals and families afford a healthy diet. In 2016 SNAP served more than 44 million Americans.

Two issues are likely to arise during the farm bill discussion: work requirements and limits on what people can buy with SNAP benefits — for example, barring their use to purchase soda or other foods that are considered unhealthy. Implementing such restrictions might prove more difficult and costly than policymakers may expect.

Other nutrition provisions in the bill help senior citizens buy goods at farmers’ markets and make fresh fruits and vegetables more readily available to millions of school children. It is easy to see why farm and nutrition advocates historically have worked together to support passage of the farm bill in an alliance that joins rural and urban interests.

Just 15 percent of America’s population lives in rural areas, but as the bumper sticker reminds us, “No farms, no food.” The farm bill helps make it possible for people who want to farm to stay on the land by funding supporting jobs that provide a second income.

Since 2009, programs authorized through the farm bill have helped more than 1.2 million families obtain home loans; provided 6 million rural residents with access to improved broadband service; enabled 791,000 workers to find jobs; and improved drinking water systems that serve 19.5 million Americans.

Farmers, with the assistance of the farm bill, can improve soil quality and preserve habitat for wildlife. The farm bill funds voluntary conservation programs that currently are helping more than 500,000 farmers and ranchers conserve soil and improve air and water quality — actions that benefit all Americans.

Producing renewable energy is an important tool for expanding economic opportunity in rural areas. USDA’s Renewable Energy for America Program has helped finance over 12,000 projects.

With legislation like this that affects so many different constituencies, a key challenge is to recognize that multiple interests are at stake and try to avoid pitting groups against one another unnecessarily. If differences become too divisive, the risk of not passing a farm bill grows.

Many programs in the farm bill are authorized only for specific periods of time. This means the ultimate consequence of not getting a bill passed could be that some policies would revert back to outdated “permanent” (nonexpiring) laws enacted more than 50 years ago. This would cause major disruptions to the nation’s food system and skyrocketing food costs.

Unfortunately, most people are unaware of the farm bill’s importance because they think it impacts only farmers. But it improves the lives of all Americans — and Congress and the president need to provide the necessary level of investment to do that.

Tom Vilsack is the former governor of Iowa and U.S. Agriculture Secretary in the Obama administration. He is now strategic adviser of Food & Water Initiatives at Colorado State University. This column was originally published on The Conversation: https://theconversation.com

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