Food policy in five is a column bringing you concise food policy updates that are less “in the weeds,” and more on the farms, on our plates, and on Capitol Hill.
Here are the five things you need to know about food policy this month and why they matter:
1. Farm Bill Stalled
The 2014 farm bill has officially expired, as congress failed to pass a final version of the bill by the September 30th deadline. The delay rests on fundamental differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, particularly within the Nutrition and Conservation titles. Additional work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants, as well as funding cuts to conservation programs, are the main points of contention.
Why it matters
The farm bill authorizes and allocates funding for hundreds of programs. Without the passage of a new farm bill many programs such as those that support beginning farmers, local and regional food systems, and international food aid, will not have funding to continue operating. However, the Farm Bill’s largest and most costly programs — SNAP, commodity programs, and crop Insurance — have mandatory budget authorization and will remain unaffected while the bill is in limbo.
The new SNAP work requirements proposed in the House Farm Bill could cause one in eleven households currently receiving SNAP benefits to be kicked off the program, leading to greater household food insecurity across the U.S. Additionally, the House Bill’s proposal to cut conservation funding by $800 million over a decade, means less money for the many programs that support and incentivize sustainable farming.
2. The New NAFTA: USMCA
A three-way trade deal to replace NAFTA has finally been reached, and fittingly named the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). The new trade deal is not dramatically different from NAFTA, but includes a few main changes: minimized barriers to U.S. access to the Canadian dairy market, stricter rules-of-origin requirements for automobile trade, and a reduction in Investor-State Dispute Settlement Rules. USMCA still has a long way to go before becoming a law because each country’s government has to ratify the agreement and as we know, the gears of government grind slowly.
Why it matters
President Trump made good on his campaign promise to renegotiate NAFTA and successfully re-branded the deal by literally putting the U.S. first in its name and adding several provisions. The agreement introduces modest improvements in market access for U.S. farmers and businesses as well as provides a level of certainty about the future of international trade that had been lost since trump entered the White House. However, passing the deal in congress may prove to be difficult with both democrats and republicans already expressing concerns about its labor and environmental standards as well as intellectual property rules. Stay tuned.
3. Agencies Team up to Reduce Food Waste
Following a panel discussion on food waste reduction held on October 18th at the USDA’s headquarters, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the USDA announced the signing of a joint agency formal agreement under the Winning on Reducing Food Waste initiative.
The agreement aims to strengthen each agency’s commitment to food waste reduction through the development of strategic plans for action and inter-agency communication. Here’s how the agencies will divide up their efforts: USDA will work to reduce post-harvest waste, FDA will focus on educating consumers on safely keeping food longer, and the EPA will concentrate on reducing the amount of food that ends up in landfills.
Why it matters
We waste tons of food. Food that could have fed hungry people, and instead ends up in landfills. In the U.S., an estimated 30-40% of the food supply is wasted. Globally, the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) associated with food waste are almost equivalent to the amount of GHGs attributed to road transportation. Any effort by U.S. agencies to reduce food waste is a step in the right direction for both sustainability and economic efficiency.
4. ERS and NIFA on the Move
In early August, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Purdue announced the agency’s plan to relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture outside of Washington D.C. The agency’s three main reasons for the move include: improving USDA’s ability to attract highly qualified staff with agriculture-focused research experience, locating USDA resources closer to the stakeholders who are most effected by USDA research and programs (i.e. farmers/rural communities), benefiting American taxpayers by saving on employment costs and rent.
Why it matters
Virtually no one outside of USDA thinks the relocation plan is a good idea. Joint letters from 100 organizations, universities, and researchers, 45 farm and scientific organizations, and 56 former USDA and other federal agency officials on both sides of the aisle have been sent to congress voicing questions and concerns. These groups primary issues with moving ERA and NIFA out of D.C. are: loss of staff expertise, isolation from collaborators, reduced visibility with policymakers, and risks to the independence and credibility of ERS and NIFA’s research. USDA has received 136 expressions of interest across 35 states to be potential sites for the relocation, but opposition continues to be strong. A proposal that puts a world-renowned research agency at risk is not beneficial at a time when scientific research is increasingly under assault.
5. Cell-based Meating
On October 23rd and 24th the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held a joint public meeting on the development of cell-based meat products. The main issues up for debate were how the products will be labeled, which agency (FDA or FSIS) will be responsible for regulating the products, and potential production hazards. Unfortunately the meeting was largely inconclusive: USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb promised to come up with a plan for regulation by the spring of 2019, no new suggestions about how to label cell-based meat emerged, and consumer advocate’s food safety concerns we’re addressed with conflicting responses from cell-based and conventional producers.
Why it matters
A collaborative approach to regulation leaves both conventional and cell-based meat producers unsatisfied and wondering where the line will be drawn between USDA and FDA. What the emerging industry’s products are called (cell-based, lab-grown, or cell-cultured) meat will strongly influence consumer’s perceptions and preferences for them. Cell-based startups like Memphis-Meats for example, claim their products are healthier, safer, and far more sustainable than conventional meat, but bringing these products to market is impossible without a clear framework for labeling and regulation.
Check back next month for another round up of five food policy issues and why they matter. Questions or suggestions? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Serena Baldwin is a first year FANPP student who gets way too excited every time Farm Bill season rolls around. She’s a passionate advocate for food and nutrition policies that further public health and environmental goals. When she’s not thinking about food policy, she enjoys yoga and making sweet potato fries in her air fryer.