Civil Eats | How the Midterm Elections Will Impact Food and Agriculture

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While prices are the only real food issue in the spotlight as the midterm elections approach, next week’s results will undoubtedly shape the nation’s food and agriculture system in many varied, significant ways.

And the effects will be nearly immediate, since three major federal policy moments that will impact how the nations eats are already here.

Which party controls both houses of Congress will determine what gets included in the two most important pieces of food and agriculture legislation—the farm bill and the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act (CNR)—as well as whether the Biden administration will be able to move forward many of the anti-hunger initiatives unveiled at the White House Conference in September.

The Farm Bill and Farm Policy

Background: Every five years, Congress deliberates over and shapes a version of the nearly-$1 trillion dollar farm bill, which determines how much funding will go to a wide range of farm programs  and nutrition programs such as SNAP. The party in the majority will control the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, which are in charge of drafting the legislation, leading negotiations, and holding hearings. Major provisions of the farm bill, such as commodity programs, rarely change in significant ways, but because the legislation is so huge, there are many ways for legislators to make changes that matter.

Based on current polling, it’s possible that one or both chambers may be controlled by Republicans, while a Democrat remains in the White House. Although passing a farm bill with a divided Congress and executive branch might sound daunting, Mike Lavender, interim policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), pointed out that this has been the case for every farm bill in the past 20 years except for the 2018 Farm Bill. “The scenario we’re heading into will likely be some combination of Democratic and Republican control,” he said, “and to situate us historically, that’s the norm.”

In the House: David Scott (D-Georgia) took over as Chair of the House Ag Committee in 2020. Over the past two years, many of the Committee’s hearings have reflected his priorities on climate, equity, and food security. If Republicans take control of the House, he will be replaced by Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pennsylvania), currently the committee’s ranking member. Thompson agrees with Scott and other Democrats on a few key issues, such as expanding rural broadband (he introduced a bill that passed in 2021) and expanding local meat processing. But his stance on nutrition programs is markedly different: He has long championed SNAP restrictions popular among Republicans and rejected by Democrats.

And while he has supported some conservation efforts in the past, Thompson has pushed back against efforts to center climate in farm policy, which many groups, including NSAC and the National Farmers Union, are calling for. (The Inflation Reduction Act also injected extra funds into conservation programs that are meant for climate-specific practices, and some groups worry that money will get moved around depending on the leadership.)

“I will not have us suddenly incorporate buzzwords like regenerative agriculture into the farm bill or overemphasize climate,” Thompson said during a September hearing. At an earlier hearing in February, he echoed his Republican colleagues in vehemently defending the meatpacking industry’s sustainability record. “Agriculture is the solution, it’s not the problem,” he said.

Thompson’s seat is considered safe, but the Committee make-up will likely shift in other key ways because several of the more than a dozen members are in close races. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) has pushed for year-round ethanol sales (despite recent evidence that corn-based ethanol may produce equivalent or higher ghg emissions compared to gasoline) and her Republican challenger Zach Nunn is similarly supportive of biofuels. But Axne was a huge proponent of the Democrats’ recent climate bill, which Nunn has called “a costly tax hike.”

Abigail Spanberger (D-Virginia) has pushed for climate action in farm policy that emphasizes bipartisanship and public-private partnerships. Her Growing Climate Solutions Act to codify carbon markets is popular on both sides of the aisle, and in hearings she’s talked about support for manure digesters to reduce methane. More progressive groups see both of those as “false” climate solutions that perpetuate consolidation and inequity.

The future of policies aimed at climate and equity (especially for Black famers) are also at stake: Joe Van Wye, the policy and outreach director at Farm Action Fund, said that in his organization’s view, “should the House flip, it will become extremely difficult to consider” making progress on those particular issues. However, “there has been significant Republican interest in ramping up antitrust activity across multiple industries, as Americans across the political spectrum have identified monopoly power and consolidation as a real threat to our economy,” he said, so efforts to reign in consolidation may continue no matter who’s in power.

In the Senate: Similar to in the House, if the Senate flips to Republican control, leadership of the Senate Ag Committee will change hands from Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) to John Boozman (R-Arkansas). Stabenow has long been a champion of specialty crops and local food, both of which are important to her state’s agricultural economy. Last month, at the National Food Policy Conference, she talked about the path ahead for the farm bill by emphasizing the importance of the connection between SNAP and farm support programs. “We need both a safety net for farmers and for families,” she said. “In my book, we don’t do a farm bill unless we do both.”

Boozman, on the other hand, stumps often for commodity growers based on his own state’s major crops, including rice, soybeans, and cotton. In July, the American Farm Bureau Federation presented him with the Golden Plow award, the organization’s highest honor, which they said recognizes lawmakers whose record “demonstrates a commitment to sound agricultural policies supported by Farm Bureau, the private enterprise system, fiscal conservatism and reduced federal regulation of businesses and individuals.” While Boozeman came to a compromise with Stabenow on a pandemic provision that kept universal school meals in place through August, he then opposed extending free school meals to all students in September.

Stabenow is not up for reelection until 2024, and Boozman is holding on to a sizable lead in his campaign. However, control of the Senate will depend at least in part on who wins in the Georgia senate race between Raphael Warnock (D-Georgia) and former football star Herschel Walker, and that race could also have implications for farmers and rural communities. As a new member of the Senate Ag Committee, Warnock has played a key role in pushing for debt relief for Black farmers.

Also, when a lawmaker loses, the person who replaces them does not simply take their place on a committee. Committee assignments take place after elections. So, Lavender said NSAC is paying attention to close races in other agricultural states, especially between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and between Democrat Tim Ryan and Republican J.D. Vance in Ohio, since any of those individuals could end up on the Senate Ag Committee to fill a vacant seat.

Finally, Lavender said while the midterms are hugely influential, the executive branch still has strong cards to play during farm bill negotiations. “It’s an outstanding question of how much and how effectively the White House and USDA will engage in a farm bill,” he said. “In part, that’s up to them.”

Child Nutrition Reauthorization

Background: The fate of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR), which is now 7 years late and determines funding for WIC and school meals is even more up in the air.

In the Senate: The Agriculture Committee is in charge of the CNR, so many of the same dynamics that apply to the farm bill process are in play here as well.

In the House: The Committee on Education and Labor has jurisdiction over CNR. Democrats in the House, led by Chairman Robert “Bobby” Scott (D-Virginia) submitted a draft earlier this year, but it has yet to move forward. Among other provisions, the bill would expand free school meals to more students and during summer months, extend WIC eligibility and modernize its systems, and increase funding for farm-to-school programs.

If Republicans flip the House, Scott would be replaced by ranking member Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina), who has a very different vision. “This rushed reauthorization of our child nutrition programs is being used by the Left to supersize welfare for all,” she said in a statement in response to Scott’s CNR draft. “Instead of working across the aisle to advance legislation that will help schools deal with Biden’s inflation and supply chain crises, [the bill] pushes progressive ideology and more government red tape.”

However, even if Foxx gains control of the committee, Lavender said there is some indication in D.C. that some of the components of the recent CNR draft could get attached to must-pass legislation that will be introduced to keep the government funded in December.

The National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health

Background: “I hope we can kind of stick to the bipartisan nature of the topic and tone that we heard today, because [hunger] shouldn’t really be a partisan issue,” said Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) at September’s White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health.

But while bipartisanship was the buzzword, Republicans begged to differ: “To say that we have been left out in the cold is an understatement,” one Hill aide told Politico, referring to the fact that very few Republican lawmakers were invited to contribute to or attend the Conference.

In the House and Senate: Biden’s national strategy to end hunger and improve health depends on Congressional action on several issues, including a permanent extension of the child tax credit and implementing universal school meals (or expanding free school meals to more—not all—students). If Republicans take control of either chamber, Democrats are unlikely to move those forward.

And the Republican vision for hunger programs is radically different. In a 2023 budget plan released this year, members of the Republican Study Committee—which represents the party’s more conservative lawmakers but includes more than three-quarters of current Representatives—called the expansion of the Child Tax Credit a “destructive policy.” They proposed major cuts to spending on existing social programs, expanding work requirements in nutrition programs, eventually consolidating SNAP into another hunger program, and completely eliminating the Community Eligibility Provision, the program that currently allows some schools to offer free meals to all students.

With such radically different agendas on the table, it’s clear that the future of our food system will be determined by who shows up at the polls on Tuesday and how they vote.