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Amanda Little: Protecting the U.S. food supply means thinking smaller

By Amanda Little Bloomberg Opinion

For better or worse, Americans are not just what we eat, we are the laws that govern what we eat. As agriculture leaders in Congress deliberate over the 2023 Farm Bill, they must confront the need for historic shifts in our food-policy diet – a momentous legislative cleanse, if you will.

Every five years, Congress revises this behemoth 1,000-page bill, reauthorizing some $800 billion in food and agriculture programs that oversee everything from farm subsidies and crop insurance to food-relief programs and organic standards. In the past half-century – since President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz told farmers to “Get big or get out!” – those allocations have overwhelmingly benefited the largest producers of meat, grains and fresh fruits and vegetables in the industry.

But if there’s anything we’ve learned in recent years, it’s that bigger is not better in an era of growing environmental and geopolitical disruption. Now the 2023 Farm Bill must shift America’s food producers away from the anachronistic consolidation trend and toward climate resilience. When producers and processors in one region are hit by a wildfire or superstorm, a dynamic, distributed network of other producers must be ready to continue generating our food supply.

There have been major benefits to the longstanding trend toward bigger, more consolidated industrial agriculture, which has produced an extraordinary abundance of low-cost food. My own household budget, along with hundreds of millions of others, has benefited. The last Farm Bill of 2018 went to great lengths to prop up big producers and support that abundance.

But then COVID-19 happened, exposing the shocking fragility of our consolidated production and supply chains; and a costly series of climate disasters happened – from the punishing drought in the West to the hurricanes in the Southeast to the windstorms of the Midwest. And the invasion of Ukraine happened, revealing still more vulnerability in the supply and transport of global commodity crops. These successive crises showed that our food systems have not been designed to be resilient in the face of disruption.

Now Congress has the chance to usher in a suite of agricultural reforms that can help small and middle-size farmers and ranchers become more productive and sustainable while encouraging Big Ag to get more nimble. My colleague Adam Minter recently argued that the 2023 Farm Bill should be, fundamentally, a climate bill, and he’s right. There’s no question that the single biggest threat to agricultural production going forward is climate change.

Nearly every one of the 12 categories, or “titles,” in the bill can and should include ambitious climate measures, starting with the Conservation Title, which oversees the environmental stewardship of farmlands. Past Farm Bills have had loose standards for defining and rewarding sustainable, climate-smart practices. These standards must become more specific and ambitious in 2023, emphasizing the most beneficial practices such as crop rotation and no-till.

Provisions in other key titles should include:

• The Energy Title must do more to incentivize promising new practices such as agrivoltaics and integrated wind turbines on America’s farmlands;

• The Horticulture Title should strengthen measures to support specialty producers growing crops from tomatoes to wine grapes that are uniquely vulnerable to climate pressures;

• The Research Title must heavily focus its R&D investments on the full gamut of climate-smart agriscience from soil carbon sequestration and genetically modified crops to cultured meats and cultivated dairy;

• The Forestry Title (the U.S. Forest Service is located within the Department of Agriculture) must establish a clear mission to manage all federal forestlands as natural climate solutions for optimal sequestration of greenhouse gases;

• The Nutrition Title, crucially, must strengthen food-relief programs for low-income Americans living in a time of costlier food and increasing hunger.

These measures are just a start, and would help lay the foundation for a shift toward sustainable and resilient food systems. But the most difficult – and perhaps the most important – work of the 2023 Farm Bill will be empowering small and midsize producers, and reversing the trend toward consolidation in American agriculture.

Sen. Cory Booker recently reintroduced legislation that would prevent the development of new large factory farms in meat production and processing. That won’t get much Republican support, but the bill contains more achievable recommendations that should be blended into the Farm Bill, such as revisions to the Packers and Stockyard Act, the antitrust legislation that is woefully out of date. If implemented, it could go a long way to reforming the monopolistic practices of large meat producers.

Another recent bipartisan bill from Booker and Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, would ensure that smaller producers, in particular, benefit from climate-smart conservation programs, making them more resilient and competitive against bigger players.

Still another recent bipartisan proposal would discourage anti-competitive behavior in farming and ranching checkoff programs.

Deconsolidating the food and agriculture industries in America will be expensive and it won’t happen in one fell swoop. It will require dozens of policy measures implemented over time to shift the balance of power away from Big Ag and toward small and midsize farmers who have proven time and again that they can thrive in an age of increasing disruptions.

But it will be far less costly over time than sticking with the status quo. The public health and climate disruptions of recent years have already laid bare the heavy cost of business as usual.

Amanda Little is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University and author of “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World.”