Final Farm Bill Blossoms: A Reasonable Bipartisan Compromise

Photo courtesy of USDA Agricultural Research Service

Today, President Trump signed the Farm Bill (H.R. 2), after the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the bipartisan conference agreement last week. The new law sets agricultural policy for the next 5 years. This final agreement has taken a winding path to completion and has at times illustrated the best and worst that Congress has to offer. The approaches taken by the House and Senate couldn’t have been more different. Both parties in the Senate went to great lengths to negotiate in good faith, delivering a bill that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Meanwhile, the House bill was defined by partisanship and poison pills. Now these starkly different bills have been reconciled and passed.  

While the final bill is not what we would have drafted had we written it from scratch, it is a reasonable bipartisan compromise and there is much good news in it. The most problematic provisions in the House bill that would have slashed funding for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps), were rejected in the final bill (though the Trump Administration has recently proposed action that would undermine that deal). Many other ill-advised attacks on health and the environment that had been included in the partisan House bill also were not included in the final law.  Here are some observations on where things landed.

Wasted Food

This Farm Bill marks a turning point on federal food waste policy with numerous constructive provisions to curtail the amount of food that goes to waste.  All of the food waste-related provisions that had originated in both the Senate and House made it into the final version.  NRDC and our allies have advocated for many of these provisions over the past several years.  Important wins include:

  • Funding for at least 10 states to develop and implement municipal compost plans and food waste reduction goals
  • Creation of a new “Food Loss and Waste Reduction Liaison” role at USDA to coordinate federal programs that will measure and reduce food loss and waste
  • Expanded efforts for states to harvest, process, package and transport donated agricultural commodities, ensuring that these foods reach people in need
  • Clarification of liability protections for food donations and provisions allowing for qualified food donors to donate food directly to individuals in need, reducing the barriers of distributing food through a third party
  • Funding for a new milk donation aimed at encouraging milk producers and processors to donate surplus milk to food recovery organizations
  • Establishment of the Local Agricultural Market Program (LAMP) which, among other things, will support the development of new business opportunities to reduce on-farm food losses

Organic Programs

On the balance, the Farm Bill increases support for organic agriculture. The bill bumps up funding for organic research that will contribute to increased productivity, efficiency, and profits for organic farms. It also continues critical funding for the organic certification cost-share program, which keeps organic food more affordable and makes the required third-party organic certification more accessible, particularly for small farmers. In addition, the final bill retained a provision from the Senate bill that directs an assessment of public seed and breed research - a step toward increasing support for public breeding programs that are critical to the ongoing resilience of our food system.

Connecting Crop Insurance and Soil Health

The final Farm Bill walks back one of the more innovative crop insurance provisions of the Senate farm bill and waters down others. While the final bill is an improvement on the House bill, which lacked substantive soil health policy, it’s a shame that it omitted a forward-thinking crop insurance provision. You can read more in our blog about the misguided removal of the Senate bill’s provision on performance-based crop-insurance discounts for risk-reducing conservation practices here. Thankfully, the final Farm Bill does retain most of the Senate bill’s provisions for USDA data coordination on conservation and risk management, which is necessary to understand the relationship between the two, though insider negotiations unhelpfully stripped the Senate bill’s instructions for USDA to assess long-term trends and impacts from “weather variability” as part of the data coordination effort. The final bill also retains an edited version of the Senate bill’s provisions that define cover crops as good farming practice, which will hopefully protect farmers who cover crop from being unfairly subject to losing crop insurance or being denied claims. As with the original Senate language, we can’t predict whether the edited language in the final version will have the intended result of getting rid of barriers to cover cropping as the final bill still requires farmers to follow complex cover crop termination guidelines produced by USDA, but we are hopeful that this will end a perennial problem.

Soil Health Demonstration Trial

While the final Farm Bill didn’t go as far as we would have liked to make soil health practices a part of risk management, we were very happy that the soil carbon pilot program, supported by a coalition including NRDC, farm organizations, and led by our partners at E2, made it into the final bill in the form of on-farm demonstration projects. The program takes an important step toward establishing a system to reward soil carbon sequestration by authorizing the program to develop protocols for measuring soil carbon levels and provide incentives to farmers for conservation practices that improve health of the land they farm. This will be the first program of its kind authorized by Farm Bill language, and it could be a groundbreaker for similar initiatives. Climate change is one of the greatest threats to the future of farming, and it is essential that our policies incentivize farmers up to be part of the solution while improving crop resilience, air and water quality. Along with E2, we’ll be following this program closely as USDA develops protocols and hoping this takes us further along the road toward monetizing climate-friendly farming.

Big Wins on Environmental Riders

The final bill’s omissions are just as important as its inclusions.  The House bill was an all-out assault on human health and the environment that included scores of highly polarizing provisions. Nearly all of these were dropped in the final legislation, an accomplishment that cannot be overstated.  These riders dramatically increased the risks associated with negotiations.  The bill’s negotiators scored major victories for public health and the environment by successfully eliminating them.  The removal of these provisions also transformed the bill’s nature from an exercise in partisanship to a serious bill that could be enacted.  Below, we’ve listed out several of the House riders and their outcomes in the final agreement.

  • Clean Water Rule: The House bill would have legislatively rescinded the landmark Clean Water Rule, which helps to protect sources of drinking water for roughly one third of Americans. Negotiators were able to keep this provision out of the final legislation.
  • Pesticides and Clean Water Act: The House bill would have allowed directly discharging pesticides into waterways without complying with the Clean Water Act, including where people fish and swim. Fortunately, the final bill dropped this provision, helping to preserve water quality for Americans around the country.
  • Local Pesticide Restrictions: The House bill would have preempted local governments from adoption restrictions against harmful pesticides, no matter how urgently protections are needed. While we need strong federal protections, local governments should be allowed to protect their constituents when state and federal governments act too slowly or fail to act at all. Farm Bill negotiators were able to remove this harmful provision.
  • Methyl Bromide: The House Farm Bill would have revived the use of methyl bromide- a toxic pesticide fumigant and potent ozone depleting substance-under the guise of “emergency exemptions.” Methyl bromide was phased out under the Montreal Protocol, the successful ozone protection treaty signed under Ronald Reagan and supported by every subsequent president, and the House’s attempt to revive its use would have jeopardized our compliance with international obligations. Congressional negotiators were able to keep this provision out of the bill. Even so, the final bill commissions a study on the need for methyl bromide emergency exemptions and whether its use can be reconciled with the Montreal Protocol. The study is unnecessary and misguided but still a vast improvement over the original provision.  
  • Poisoned Pollinators: The House bill included a destructive provision that would have allowed the use of toxic pesticides, even if they ended up killing endangered species. In doing so, the bill would not only have put pollinators and other imperiled wildlife at grave risk, it would have also posed a massive health threat to farmers, consumers and our food supply. Fortunately, this damaging provision was dropped. Instead the final bill establishes an interagency working group to provide recommendations and implement a strategy for improving the consultation process required under the Endangered Species Act for pesticide registration. While this interagency group has the potential to weaken the consultation process for pesticides, it is a vast improvement over the original provision.
  • Tongass: The House bill would have exempted the Tongass National Forest--the heart of the largest remaining intact temperate rainforest in the world and our country’s single most important national forest for carbon sequestration and climate change mitigation--from the Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The Roadless Rule provides critical protections for millions of acres of untouched National Forest System lands in 39 states, including 9.5 million acres of Tongass wildlands, limiting costly and environmentally-damaging roadbuilding and logging, helping to protect taxpayers, and preserving wild, high conservation value lands across the country. The Farm Bill negotiators were able to remove this controversial provision from the final bill.
  • Public Lands: The House bill would have opened up pristine federal lands to unchecked logging and development.  It contained numerous “categorical exclusions” which would allow for large scale land management projects to circumvent the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It would have removed critical habitat, wilderness areas or determinations under the Endangered Species Act as “extraordinary circumstances” that would require adherence to NEPA. The Farm Bill negotiators were able to remove all of these harmful provisions from the final bill.
  • Dangerous and Unsanitary Products: The House bill contained a sprawling and harmful provision that would prevent states from protecting their citizens against agricultural products manufactured in other states, no matter how harmful or unsanitary.  This provision was dropped completely, preserving the ability of states to ensure their constituents are protected against dangerous products.

On balance, the final bill is a product of bipartisan compromise.  The House majority burned countless hours at taxpayer expense to develop a messaging bill with no chance of enactment. Meanwhile, the Senate got to work writing serious legislation. The compromise bill isn’t perfect, but we are very pleased that it largely tracks the bipartisan Senate bill.  It abandons scores of dangerous anti-environmental provisions that would have harmed the environment and doomed the bill to failure. The Members of Congress who committed to bipartisanship should be commended for delivering a viable bill.

About the Authors

Erik D. Olson

Senior Director, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

Mae Wu

Senior Attorney and Deputy Director, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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