Farm Bill Negotiations Drag On

New momentum for passing a Farm Bill is encouraging, but bipartisan consensus remains elusive

Farm Bill Negotiations Drag On

Discussions around the next Farm Bill reauthorization began even before members of the 118th Congress, which would see the expiration of the 2018 Farm Bill, were elected and sworn in. Many leading anti-hunger groups, nutrition organizations, agricultural producer groups, agribusiness coalitions, and environmental advocates are going on two years of lobbying for changes to the sweeping 5-year legislation that sets national food and agriculture policy.

Tensions were high from the outset. Environmentalists called on Congress to protect funding for “climate-smart” practices under conservation programs, while Republicans argued for broader eligibility. Commodity groups demanded increases in commodity subsidies and crop insurance options, while fiscal hawks cautioned against raising reference prices. Stakeholders were sharply divided on nutrition spending as well, which makes up the bulk of the Farm Bill’s total price tag. Conservatives wanted to restrict future updates to the food costs model used to set SNAP benefit levels and use cost savings for other priorities. Meanwhile, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow called changes to SNAP benefits a “red-line” her caucus was unwilling to entertain.

These debates have persisted over the course of 2023 and into 2024, with opposing sides becoming increasingly entrenched and discourse becoming increasingly partisan. With time under the 2018 Farm Bill running out, Congress exercised a brief blip of bipartisan collaboration to pass a one-year extension of the package’s key programs through September before retreating back to ideological corners.

After months of little public progress, both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees took concrete steps this month to advance their respective Farm Bill frameworks. While many are applauding this month’s Farm Bill flurry as a welcome development, there remains a long road ahead to a bipartisan compromise with chances of passing both chambers and making it to the President’s desk.

That said, the competing frameworks do offer some insights as to what a final Farm Bill will shape up to look like—that is, one that only makes adjustments at the margins of agricultural policy. With a transformative farm bill all but impossible, increasing funding for agricultural innovation and R&D remains crucial. As negotiations move forward, lawmakers must heavily weigh the importance of funding a robust research title in the final bill.

Competing Farm Bill Frameworks

While much of the reporting on the Farm Bill centers on the hot button debates like nutrition spending, agricultural research programs remain a bright spot for bipartisan agreement. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle recognize the importance of agricultural research and the role investments in innovation play in ensuring a productive and resilient agricultural system. And still, differences in specific research priorities between the recently released Farm Bill framework by Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow and draft text from House Agriculture Committee Chairman GT Thompson still need to be negotiated.

There was significant overlap between the chambers’ Title VII agricultural research proposals, including the expansion of priority research areas under USDA’s flagship competitive grants program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. Both proposals also reauthorize the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority, include sizable investments in research facilities infrastructure, increase funding for the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, and promote interagency agricultural research efforts.

The Senate framework also includes proposals to bolster measurement, monitoring, reporting, and verification of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration at USDA; expand the types of innovative conservation approaches funded through On-Farm Conservation Innovation Grants including livestock related practices that reduce enteric methane emissions; and codify and authorize consistent funding for the USDA Climate Hubs.

Among other proposals included in the Senate framework but missing from the House text is $250 million in mandatory funding over five years for the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR). According to Breakthrough’s analysis, FFAR devotes more than 20 percent of its funds to climate mitigation and has significantly stepped up its investments in key mitigation areas in recent years. For example, in 2023, FFAR and its partners awarded over $5 million in grants to projects under the Greener Cattle Initiative, a public-private consortium, to identify ways that selective breeding of dairy cattle could lower enteric methane emissions. In 2024, FFAR announced up to $5 million more for a second round of projects.

FFAR is a vital source of funding for research and development in food and agriculture, leveraging more than $1.4 private sector dollars with every dollar of federal investment. New investments in the Farm Bill are needed to ensure FFAR continues to make critical investments in agricultural research that catalyze innovation.

Incentivizing an Ecosystem of Innovation

Beyond Title VII, the House and Senate frameworks both included a bipartisan proposal to re-establish USDA’s Food Supply Chain Guaranteed Loan Program (FSCGLP). The COVID-era program successfully extended nearly $1 billion in loan guarantees to enhance financing opportunities for agricultural and food businesses in the middle of the supply chain, until the program lapsed in 2023.

The specifics on where to house the program differ across the House and Senate proposals. The Senate proposes a standalone program to make guaranteed loans and grants available for projects to increase the capacity of the food supply chain. Alternatively, the House framework opts to broaden the existing Business & Industry Loan Guarantee Program to back loan guarantees for these types of projects.

Little federal financing is available for innovative agricultural technologies moving from the R&D phase to commercial deployment. To date, the FSCGLP has largely funded middle-of-the-supply-chain activities for conventional agriculture products and extended a very limited number of awards to innovative or emerging food products. Codifying and authorizing annual appropriations for this program has the potential to start to fill a glaring gap in federal support for innovations with potential to improve the resilience and productivity of the U.S. food system.

Looking Ahead

Given each chamber’s set of proposals, it is out of the question that the next Farm Bill will shape up to transform or significantly overhaul agricultural policy. A bipartisan Farm Bill agreement that makes advantageous adjustments to USDA’s agricultural research portfolio and rural development programs, even at the margins of policy, is still a long way off.

As Farm Bill negotiations between the House and Senate move forward, Breakthrough encourages lawmakers to recognize the strong returns on investment promised by agricultural research and innovation. Instead of splitting hairs over research priorities to fund or strip out of a final Farm Bill, Congress should fund a robust Title VII.

This funding is needed not only for climate mitigation solutions, but for innovations to boost productivity, enhance pest and disease resistance, and shore up resilience to increasingly variable climate conditions. These innovations are desperately needed to address the high price-tag issues plaguing negotiators in other Titles of the Farm Bill, like the costs of disaster relief payments, producers facing rising production costs, rising crop insurance costs, and rising food prices ballooning the cost of nutrition programs. Funding research on solutions today could help reduce the burden of these costs in the future. If Congress were to fund all of the agricultural research priorities with mandatory funding laid out in both the Senate and House proposals, Title VII would make up less than 0.3% of the total $1.4 trillion Farm Bill package.

Investments in research and innovation are a down payment to ensure the profitability, resiliency, and productivity of U.S. agriculture. Whether the next Farm Bill is finalized this summer, after a short-term extension in a lame duck session, or in 2025, maximizing federal investments in research and innovation should be a top priority for negotiators.