Hoping the Farm Bill Will be a Win for Producers and the Planet?

Here are our top proposals to watch.

Hoping the Farm Bill Will be a Win for Producers and the Planet?

With Congress back in full swing, agriculture advocates and policymakers are staring down a fast approaching deadline. On September 30, the Farm Bill — a must pass, often bipartisan piece of legislation that governs the U.S. farm and nutrition programs — is set to expire.

Farm bills are typically passed every five years, but recent deals made to raise the debt ceiling and stalled negotiations on appropriations bills have all but guaranteed that September 30 will come and go with no new Farm Bill in place. While the timeline for either chamber of Congress bringing a full 2023 Farm Bill to a vote remains unclear, Congress has been in preparation mode for the last several months.

Members of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees spent the early half of the year conducting listening sessions with farmers and ranchers across the country and holding committee hearings in Washington with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program administrators and other stakeholders.

In addition, lawmakers—both on and off committee—have released a steady stream of marker bills over the last several months. These smaller pieces of legislation serve as proposals for potential inclusion in the larger Farm Bill package and signal each office’s food and agriculture priorities.

Below is Breakthrough’s roundup of marker bills that aim to bolster agricultural innovation, catalyze agricultural research on areas with high climate mitigation potential, shore up support for producers to adopt climate-smart practices, and expand access to financing to ensure the diversity and resiliency in the U.S. food supply chain.

While it is unlikely that the 2023 Farm Bill will be truly transformational—it probably will not overhaul crop insurance or nutrition programs, for example—the proposals embedded in these bills have the potential to make real change at the margins for both U.S. producers and the climate. Even more promising, unless otherwise noted, each of these proposals are bipartisan.

1. Bolstering USDA research programs

Among a full slate of partisan disagreements, science and innovation have the potential to cross party divides. With public agricultural R&D spending at a 20-year low and producers facing increased global competition and new threats, such as climate change, geopolitical risk, and supply chain crises, new investments in the Farm Bill’s research programs are long overdue.

Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) and Roger Marshall (R-Kansas) and Representatives Jimmy Panetta (D-California) and Randy Feenstra (R-Iowa), led the introduction of the Advancing Cutting Edge (ACE) Agriculture Act, which makes adjustments to the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AgARDA). This USDA program was first authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill to make competitive research grants available to carry out high-risk, high-reward research. But it remains severely underfunded. The ACE Agriculture ACT would increase the authorization of appropriations for the program from $50 million to $100 million per year. The legislation also clarifies the program’s priorities to ensure that AgARDA supports high-reward research that will enable farmers and ranchers to raise their productivity, enhance the resilience of their operations, and minimize their environmental footprint.

Several members of the Iowa delegation, along with Representative Deborah Ross (D-North Carolina), have set their sights on reauthorizing a smaller research program. Representatives Randy Feenstra (R-Iowa) and Zach Nunn (R-Iowa) introduced the Genome to Phenome Initiative Reauthorization Act to, as the bill title implies, reauthorize the Agriculture Genome to Phenome project at $40 million per year. This research initiative is administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) at USDA to support foundational research on predicting phenotypes from genomic sequencing. Supporters like the Iowa Corn Growers Association assert that this research is critical for improving the efficiency and accuracy of agricultural plant and animal breeding and biotechnology.

The Agriculture Resilience Act (ARA), reintroduced by Representative Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Senator Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) this Congress, proposes authorization increases for several R&D programs that are well poised to spur research at the intersection of agriculture and the climate. The ARA is a wide ranging piece of legislation and has only democratic support. While its overarching goal centers on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector by 50% by 2030, many of its proposals, such as those to increase pasture-based livestock production, have limited capacity for climate mitigation if implemented.

However, the ARA does include a few R&D proposals with potential to increase yields and improve climate resilience, including a proposal to increase funding for public cultivar breeding at NIFA. Furthermore, the ARA would establish a $50 million per year authorization for the Long-Term Agroecosystem Network and USDA Climate Hubs. Managed by the Agricultural Research Service at USDA, the LTAR Network coordinates research across 18 sites on the sustainable intensification of agricultural production. The USDA Climate Hubs work to bring research into practice by delivering science-based, region-specific information and technologies to agricultural producers and natural resource managers across the country to mitigate climate-related risks.

Also aiming to expand agricultural research and teaching at the nation’s land grant universities, Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Raphael Warnock (D-Georgia) and Representatives Alma Adams (D-North Carolina), Marilyn Strickland (D-Washington), and Sanford D. Bishop, Jr. (D-Georgia) introduced the 1890s Advancing and Building Leadership and Excellence (ENABLE) Opportunity Act. NIFA administers several 1890 land-grant institution programs that aim to strengthen research capacity in the food and agricultural sciences at historically black universities and increase diversity in the science, technology, engineering, agriculture, and mathematics pipelines. The democrat-supported ENABLE Opportunity Act would provide funding for four new Centers of Excellence—including one focused on climate change adaptation and mitigation and another focused on bioprocessing and innovative food and agriculture product development—and increase funding for existing Centers at 1890 institutions.

While not a marker bill, a diverse coalition of industry, research, and non-profit stakeholders recently expressed support for increasing funding in the Farm Bill for the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR). In a letter to House and Senate Agriculture Committee leaders, stakeholders highlighted the success of FFAR’s public-private partnership model, which offers at least a 1:1 match for each federal dollar it awards, in awarding more than 300 grants totaling over $600 million in research funding matched and awarded. More than 125 organizations and companies—including National Corn Growers Association, General Mills, McDonalds, PepsiCo, Danone, Yum Brands!, National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research, and several land grant universities—support the request. Historically, the program has been a top priority for Senate Agriculture chair Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan). She is set to retire next year, and ensuring funding for FFAR in the 2023 Farm Bill is expected to be part of legacy.

2. Promoting U.S. agricultural exports

Rising temperatures, widespread drought, more frequent heat waves, shifting pest patterns, and other impacts of climate change will continue to threaten food production in the coming decades. As these threats persist and worsen, U.S. trade and market development programs can reduce agricultural emissions by promoting the export of low-emission products and reducing trade barriers for biotechnology. Greater agricultural trade liberalization can also reduce the impacts of climate change on food security and nutrition.

A growing number of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have signaled their support for two of USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service’s longest standing export programs. The Expanding Agricultural Exports Act would double mandatory funding for the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development Program to $400 million and $69 million, respectively. Senators Angus King (I-Maine), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), and Tina Smith (D-Minnesota) and Representative Dan Newhouse (R-Washington) have emphasized the value of these oversubscribed programs, which provide a cost share to agricultural organizations carrying out marketing and promotional activities to help build export markets for U.S. products overseas. It is estimated that this investment would grow U.S. agricultural sales by over $7 billion annually. Increasing funding for these programs is a top priority for many agricultural commodity groups.

3. Scaling adoption of precision agriculture tech

Precision agriculture technologies— including sensors, variable-rate fertilizer and pesticide applicators, and GPS-based yield mapping—allow U.S. farmers to more efficiently and effectively apply their inputs. These technologies can be used to reduce overall fertilizer application rates and nitrogen losses, cut costs, and otherwise improve productivity to increase revenues. It is estimated that precision agriculture farming techniques allow farmers to reduce chemical application by up to 80%, water usage by 20–50%, and the amount of fuel burned by 40%.

Despite the opportunity for the technologies to improve the profitability and sustainability of food production, precision agriculture equipment is expensive to purchase, especially for small or midsize producers that can’t afford to go through traditional financing. To address these barriers, Senators Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) introduced the Precision Agriculture Loan (PAL) Act to establish a new loan program under USDA’s Farm Service Agency. The program would offer low-cost and long-term loans to farmers and ranchers interested in adopting precision agriculture technologies with potential to help lower costs, optimize productivity, and reduce their operation’s environmental footprint.

Fischer and Klobuchar also joined Representative Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) to enable farmers and ranchers to increase their adoption of precision ag technologies through existing USDA conservation programs. The Producing Responsible Energy and Conservation Incentives and Solutions for the Environment (PRECISE) Act would expand financial support under USDA’s existing EQIP and CSP conservation programs for U.S. producers seeking to adopt precision agriculture technologies or equipment.

4. Extending loans to innovative food businesses

In addition to expanding financing opportunities for U.S. producers, lawmakers have put forward proposals to expand financing options available to agriculture and food businesses in the middle of the supply chain.

The Food Supply Chain Guaranteed Loan Program, initially authorized by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 as part of USDA's Build Back Better initiative, aimed to foster a more resilient, diverse, and secure U.S. food supply chain. The program offered guaranteed loans of up to $40 million each for qualified lender to finance infrastructure projects within the middle of the food supply chain, covering activities such as aggregation, processing, manufacturing, storage, transportation, wholesaling, and distribution. After backing close to $1 billion in loans for projects, the program stopped accepting applications when its unobligated funds were rescinded in the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023, enacted to raise the nation's debt ceiling before default.

In response, a bipartisan group of Representatives—Ro Khanna (D-California), Max Miller (R-Ohio), Shontel Brown (D-Ohio), and Marc Molinaro (R-New York)—hope to permanently authorize the program in the 2023 Farm Bill, codifying and expanding it with $29 million in annual funding through fiscal year 2028. The proposed legislation aims to enhance financing opportunities for agricultural and food businesses, with a focus on improving the resilience and productivity of the U.S. food system. Expanding the availability of federal loan guarantees—throughout the supply chain, not only in the middle—will play an essential role in supporting the commercialization and scaling up of food products and technologies with the potential to increase efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. food supply chain.

5. Investing in climate-smart agriculture systems and measurement

Climate is one of the more divisive issues that will plague lawmakers in farm bill negotiations. As a growing amount of government funding is directed toward incentivizing “climate-smart” agriculture practices, quantifying, verifying, or otherwise measuring their environmental benefits and tradeoffs becomes increasingly important. To this end, several new marker bills aim to prioritize funding for improved climate-smart tools, technologies, practices, and management systems.

Senators Tina Smith (D-Minnesoata) and Todd Young (R-Indiana) introduced the Advancing Research on Agricultural Climate Impacts Act. This legislation would enable the USDA to lead in developing consistent, science-based, and standardized soil carbon measurement methodologies. It also directs the USDA to leverage existing programs, such as the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, Agricultural Research Service, and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), to develop new tools to better measure, monitor, report, and verify (MMRV) greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration activities.

In addition, by directing the USDA to support on-farm demonstration projects through the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program and Conservation Innovation Grant On-Farm Trials, this legislation will help ensure that MMRV tools and systems are cost-effective for producers. The bill was followed up with a House version in August.

Two Democrats in the Senate and a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House led the introduction of a bill to create a new federal manure management conservation program. The Converting Our Waste Sustainably (COWS) Act is modeled after a voluntary Alternative Manure Management Program in California and would fund improvements made to manure management systems on dairies and other livestock operations, including equipment to separate and dry out or compost manure solids. By providing voluntary incentives for operations to implement alternative manure management systems, this bill has the potential to reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions, improve air quality, and address other environmental concerns.

6. Streamlining processes and improving agency coordination

Perhaps the least flashy category of marker bills, but nevertheless important, are those trying to improve the government’s operations and maximize productive inter-agency coordination.

Senators Roger Marshall (R-Kansas), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), and Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) introduced the Streamlining Conservation Practice Standards Act in the final days of the August recess. The bill would update how USDA’s NRCS approves farming practices and technologies to support. If enacted, this legislation could pave the way for a faster approval process for new technologies and innovative practices that help producers improve environmental outcomes while maintaining productivity to be included under USDA conservation programs.

Improving coordination across agencies is important not only to minimize wasteful duplication, but also to best leverage knowledge and resources on cross-cutting issues. To this end, Representatives Frank Lucas (R-Oklahoma) and Zoe Lofgren (D-California), leaders of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, introduced the DOE and USDA Interagency Research Act to improve the two agencies’ coordination around research related to advanced crop science, maximizing carbon storage, and precision agriculture technologies.

As farm bill negotiations continue well into this fall and possibly into 2024, partisan fights regarding hot button issues with high price tags—like nutrition programs, reference prices, and climate-smart conservation funding—will persist. How they are resolved will undoubtedly carry consequences for the food system and farm economy. Smaller marker bills, however, also hold promise to orient government spending toward a more productive and resilient agricultural future. Congress should give careful consideration to those that prioritize agricultural science, innovation, and research and include them in the eventual 2023 Farm Bill package.