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Farm bill funding fight already brewing

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AG SPENDING: Agricultural appropriations bill advance on Capitol Hill for funding year 2022.
Republicans say new USDA food system framework fails to address rising input costs and regulatory burdens.

This week Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack unveiled $2.1 billion in funding to “transform the food system” by targeting funds allocated through pandemic assistance to help add resiliency to the U.S. food system that has shifted to larger-scale efficiencies at the expense of resiliency. However, Republicans were quick to criticize the funding which they say funds pet projects and fails to address the needs of many producers, such as regulatory burdens and skyrocketing fertilizer costs.

Amongst a long list of funding targets, the framework includes $300 million to assist farmers transitioning to organic, $75 million to support urban agriculture, $375 million for expanding independent meat processing, $100 million for workforce development, $400 million to create regional food business centers and up to $600 million in financial assistance to support the food supply chain infrastructure.

While making the announcement at Georgetown University on June 1, Vilsack explains the programs and policies are at different stages. “Some are already being deployed to transform local and regional systems and the way we move food across the system, while others we are just hitting the ground running. We will see to it that all these investments make their way into transforming communities, their food systems and supply chains in the coming months with resources obligated by the end of the year.”

Related: USDA to infuse billions into transforming food supply chain

This sets up a nice preview for USDA and members of Congress to see how the investments work ahead of the writing of the 2023 Farm Bill. However, all the funds allocated under the pandemic assistance are not part of the 2018 Farm Bill baseline, so any increases in spending would need to be offset with decreases elsewhere. Rising input costs continue to pose a problem that policymakers and industry groups don’t know yet how to manage within the farm bill safety net.

Vilsack concluded his speech noting that the billions of dollars being invested in the food system transportation “will require consistent and substantial funding to ensure the investments of today are built to last well into the future. The farm bill presents a critical opportunity to advance the new vision of the transformed food system we discussed today.”

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., led the effort to secure the $4 billion in funding for supply chain resilience in the American Rescue Plan. In a statement following USDA’s rollout of half of those funds, Stabenow says, “I’m pleased Secretary Vilsack is implementing my supply chain provisions to lower costs and build a food system that is fairer for consumers and better for the men and women who power our food economy.”

Misplaced priorities

However, Stabenow’s counterpart on the Senate Ag Committee, ranking member John Boozman, R-Ark., says much of this ‘framework’ is merely a repackaging of previously announced initiatives that will receive one time funding provided for COVID relief. He adds the proposal “misses the mark and fails to meet the moment.” 

Boozman adds, “While the world is looking to the U.S. for leadership and bold thinking, the Biden administration instead offers misplaced priorities and wishful thinking,” Boozman says. “Our global food supply system faces severe challenges that require serious responses.”

Boozman’s director of communications Patrick Creamer adds that the senator wants to continue to reinforce the need to address the large-scale issues farmers and ranchers are facing, as well as consumers.

“The world is currently experiencing a global food crisis. Farmers are struggling to keep up with record high input costs such as fertilizer and diesel fuel and are increasingly worried about future farm profitability,” Creamer says, noting a recent study from Texas A&M suggested farm profits could drop by 60% due to higher input costs. In Arkansas, the average rice producer may not even breakeven this year.

“Spending billions on experimental pilot programs and duplicating private market incentives to boost organic and urban agriculture will not get us out of this mess, nor will it distract from the measures being pursued by this administration that are severely hamstringing farmers,” Creamer adds.

Creamer explains the administration’s top lawyer recently weighed in on a glyphosate lawsuit that could potentially remove a key crop protection tool farmers need to not only remain productive, but also assisting in mitigating carbon emissions.

Meanwhile, the House Agriculture Committee leading Republican Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-Pa., says, “Increasing spending on organic initiatives and rooftop gardens while placing misguided blame on corporations and agribusinesses will not increase domestic food production.”

Thompson says the announcement “blatantly ignores the skyrocketing inflation rates and input costs that are crushing America’s producers, compounded by the administration’s burdensome regulatory overreach.”

Thompson adds, “There is no reason to use pandemic-related funds to 'transform' a food system that has long provided the safest, most affordable and sustainable food and fiber supply in the world."

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