The Farm Bill is among the most critical pieces of legislation for our food system, our environment, and the health and nutrition of communities across the nation. Its name does not do justice to its broad scope: in addition to providing direct support to US farmers and safety net and nutrition assistance programs for US families and communities, it is also the nation’s largest source of federal funding for private lands conservation and is integral to rural energy and development, forest restoration and conservation, and agricultural research. The 2023 Farm Bill is a critical opportunity to strengthen these programs to better support healthy people, a healthy planet, and a healthy farm economy.
The Farm Bill presents a unique opportunity to come together around a shared vision for food system transformation spanning production, consumption, and waste reduction. The Farm Bill can provide farmers, ranchers, and forest owners with tools to voluntarily advance local and national sustainability goals, play a vital role in the livelihoods of producers and rural communities, and address nutrition, hunger, and food loss and waste.
The Farm Bill, typically renewed by Congress every five years, is up for reauthorization this year. During reauthorization, Congress can make updates and changes to the Farm Bill’s programs and policies. Advancing this shared vision for food system transformation while addressing the considerable impacts of our food and agriculture systems presents a monumental task for the 2023 Farm Bill. Globally, the food and agriculture sectors are a primary and biodiversity loss and a leading source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Here in the US, conversion from native ecosystems to row crop agriculture resulted in the loss of 1.8 million acres of grassland habitat in the Great Plains in 2020 and 10 million acres between 2016-2020 (approximately half the size of Maine). This large-scale habitat loss is a major contributor to the precipitous decline of grassland birds
and other critical wildlife species including pollinators, the release of immense amounts of sequestered carbon, the loss of critical water quality and quantity benefits, and a reduction in resilience of grassland ecosystems. and biodiversity loss and a leading source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Here in the US, conversion from native ecosystems to row crop agriculture resulted in the loss of 1.8 million acres of grassland habitat in the Great Plains in 2020 and 10 million acres between 2016-2020 (approximately half the size of Maine). This large-scale habitat loss is a major contributor to the precipitous decline of grassland birds
and other critical wildlife species including pollinators, the release of immense amounts of sequestered carbon, the loss of critical water quality and quantity benefits, and a reduction in resilience of grassland ecosystems.
There is also a clear connection between sustainable agriculture and healthy people. Thoughtfully designed agricultural policies and programs can encourage more diversified crops on more diversified farms to help bring more affordable, nutritious food options to the table. Lack of access to these food choices contributes to poor nutrition. More than 1 million Americans die from diet-related diseases each year, and an estimated 38 million individuals lived in food-insecure households in 2020. We cannot have healthy people without sustainable agricultural systems, and we cannot have sustainable agriculture without a resilient, sustainable planet.
So, what should Congress do with this critical opportunity? In the “big picture,” our leaders should invest public resources to achieve public goods. This would mean support to American farmers, ranchers, and forest owners in achieving net zero emissions in agriculture by 2040, ending agriculture commodity-driven habitat conversion, improving soil health and water resource management, enhancing resilience, and reversing species decline. This bill can support food production, human health, and environmental sustainability while supporting the viability of US producers – and it needs to do so.
One of the most immediate actions Congress should take on this path is to protect and build on the $20 billion investment in agricultural conservation and conservation technical assistance included in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). The unprecedented investment from the IRA in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs provides the best opportunity in decades to meet producer demand for consistently oversubscribed programs that enable farmers, ranchers, and forest owners to become more resilient and sustainable, which is essential to their own viability and that of our food system and ecosystems. In addition to protecting the investment from the IRA, Congress should support and sustain funding for conservation title programs. Beyond protecting funding for conservation, here are key components Congress should include in the Farm Bill to set a climate-, nature-, and people-positive pathway:
- Expand and improve how USDA programs conserve and restore ecosystems.
- Halt unsustainable agricultural activities and help eliminate conversion of vital ecosystems such as forests and grasslands in agricultural supply chains.
- Scale up support for regenerative agriculture, including bolstering incentives for crop diversity, sustainable ranching, biodiversity, water conservation, and alternative animal feed strategies. For WWF, regenerative agriculture is a holistic and place-based approach to agriculture that increases biodiversity, protects water ecosystems, builds soil health, and mitigates and adapts to climate change while also supporting producers and communities to thrive and producing nutritious food.
- Significantly improve the ability to measure and track outcomes for climate and nature by investing in more robust data collection, management and analysis, including tracking conversion of natural ecosystems.
- Invest in strategic programs and partnerships to reduce the 40% of crops and food that end up in landfills or rotting in fields. Investing in food loss and waste reduction delivers social, economic, and environmental benefits.
- Promote conservation and improved management of freshwater resources to help address the ever more sever water crises faced by producers and communities.
- Invest in clean energy programs while ensuring bioenergy and advanced fuels programs deliver clear greenhouse gas emissions reductions and do not contribute to conversion of grasslands and other important habitats.
- Implement strategic improvements to ensure the full diversity of farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners have equal access to USDA conservation programs and services.
- Connect healthy people, resilient agriculture, and environmental sustainability by more broadly supporting diversified, regenerative agriculture in farm support programs and by incorporating sustainability and agrobiodiversity considerations into dietary guidelines.
By investing in the health of people, the planet, and the US farm economy, we will ensure the long-term vibrancy of our agriculture sector and ensure food and nutrition security for all for future generations. Congress can ensure that the nation’s land, soil, and water resources will continue to provide the necessary foundation for the nation’s farmers, ranchers, and forest owners to produce and thrive for generations to come.
Read WWF's Food and Farm Security: Summary of Recommendations for the 2023 Farm Bill here.